I've stopped publishing interviews a long time ago but once in a while i stumble upon someone whose work and ideas sound so relevant to my interests that i immediately get back on the interview track. A couple of weeks ago, Rui Guerra answered one of my facebook rants (which usually target museum press people who refuse to give me access to press images because i'm a blogger therefore 'images are not safe" with me) with a comment so smart and informative that i wanted to know more about his opinion about online strategies for cultural spaces.
Guerra is teaching, working and collaborating with the likes of V2_, Laboral Art and Industrial Creation Centre, Piet Zwart Institute and the Royal Academy of Art in The Hague. He is also the co-founder of ʻItʼs not that kindʼ (INKT), a studio focused on developing online strategies primarily for the cultural and creative sector. Besides working commercially, INTK develops artistic projects that explores the intersection of art, technology and society.
You're working on developing online strategies for cultural institutes. You've recently worked for two institutions that are beacons in the world of new media art, V2_ and LABoral. Can you explain us what you did for them? And if working for a cultural institute specialized in art and tech is any different than working for a more 'traditional' cultural center? Do they have different expectations and requests?
Rui Guerra: Cultural and heritage organizations, including new media art organizations, often regard their online presence as a marketing strategy. Their website and other online activities are traditionally run by a communication department (or public relations). This led to the current situation where websites are regarded as announcement platforms or brochures. Surely, there are exceptions but the current rule is to use online technologies as a marketing tool to attract visitors to physical locations. This scenario is changing rapidly. In 2001, the number of people who visited the four Tate museums was approximately twice as large as the number of visitors of the Tate website. In 2004, for the ﬁrst time in history, the number of online and ofﬂine visitors was comparable. Five years later (2009), the number of online visitors was three times as high as the number of people that visited all Tate museums combined. The rapid growth of a 24h/7 online audience is awakening organizations for the fact that websites are much more than just mere ﬂyers. An online platform with a growing world wide audience might very well be an extremely valuable ʻvenueʼ. Wouldn't it be ironic if in the near future, ofﬂine exhibitions would be just a marketing strategy to attract visitors to websites?
Online platforms have changed so rapidly that it might be important to revise current strategies. The online strategies that we at INTK develop together with organizations start from the point of view that a website is a platform in itself and that it is meant for an online audience. This is not a unique point of view, see for example, the ten principles that John Stack published at the Tate Online Strategy for 2010-12. The resulting online strategies can be quite comprehensive covering aspects in terms of content, context, business model, identity, interaction, communities, software and maintenance. So the changes that might occur due to a new online strategy are not just in terms of software but also organizational. Based on my experience, the ability to adopt new technologies does not depend directly on whether organizations include technology in their subject of interest but rather how fast and ﬂexible they are in adapting to changes and new ways of working.
In a previous online conversation you mentioned the catalogue issue and how institutions invest time, money and energy to print beautifully designed catalogues but pay little to no attention to the possibility of publishing the same content online.
What arguments do you use to convince them to modify their attitude? What can art institutions gain from providing their web visitors with an online catalogue? Does the catalogue have to be available for free?
Rui Guerra:I was often surprised how efﬁcient institutions are in collecting information to print in catalogues and how clumsy they are with publishing similar content online. Most of the organizations we've worked with do not need to be convinced to publish their content online. It is well-known that via the internet you can reach an audience that would be unthinkable 10 years ago. The urge to publish online is already there, what is missing are online publication models ﬁne-tuned to the speciﬁc needs of cultural organizations.
Let me describe some of the challenges my colleagues at V2_ and me have encountered while developing their online strategy. V2_, Institute for the Unstable Media, just like many other organizations, had two different websites: one used to announce news and events and an online archive where all activities are documented. This approach not only divided the visitors, it also doubled the amount of work for the already scarce human resources. The solution passed through merging the two websites. The announcement platform and the archive platform had to be one and the same. Now it sounds like a no-brainer but it was not obvious back then. How can you present fresh news while at the same time show a rich archive of the last 30 years? How can you stay light and engaging while at same time remain informative and interesting? These were some of the questions we had to answer. New content needed to be historically contextualized using archived information while at the same time visitors searching for historical content should be informed about recent developments or events.
We needed a model that would be simultaneously temporal and semantic. We implemented a system that allowed editors to relate content in a semantic manner and presented it in a well structured page. Besides that it was also important to include relations that only emerge with time. With that purpose in mind, we developed a ʻrelated contentʼ system that is presented in all pages and is driven by meta-information. All content is documented with tags but instead of showing the tags to the visitors, we use them to search for archived content and to generate a related items list. This is not much different from youtube related videos or from what a lot of bloggers do by manually linking new blog posts to previous related ones. It sounds like the obvious thing to do but when you think about it, you realize that such systems are not commonly used. The new website was developed using existing open source software (Plone) and new functionality was added as open source modules. The new software was in place within the ﬁrst 3 months followed by progressive adaptations until we achieved a quite stable system that can be downloadable from http://www.culturecab.org Currently, you can use V2_'s website as a research tool or at least as a comprehensive catalogue of their activities. Since the new strategy has been launched, V2_ online audience has tripled last year and recently, they had a video on youtube that has reached more than a million views.
About making content freely accessible online, we think that each organization needs to carefully think about a sustainable business model. Overprotecting content might drive you to oblivion and exclude society from a fundamental part of culture. On the other hand, you do not want to see others deriving proﬁt from your assets at your own expenses. There is a beautiful publication freely available online that is a great introduction to business model innovation for culture heritage (PDF.) Business models are an important part of a thoughtful online strategy.
How about the audience? Do we already expect to ﬁnd PDF of catalogues? Would we be curious enough to visit the online version of an exhibition? Or do we still cling to our old habits?
Rui Guerra:There are fundamental differences between an exhibition, a printed catalogue and an online platform. They have different goals and serve different needs therefore they are not mutually exclusive, in the contrary, they complement each other. You could say that exhibitions and catalogues are like snapshots of a given cultural context, they happen or are published at a certain period in time. Online platforms have the potential to be dynamic to evolve along with time. Theoretically, websites offer an unlimited amount of information and multiple views offer that information. With so much potential, one wonders why websites that offer a great cultural experience are so scarce? Again, I think we are lacking beﬁtting models. You can ﬁnd online exhibitions modeled after a book, after a DVD, after a physical space, after a geographic map, even modeled after an archival database. Applying old models, or dumping catalogues in PDF format online, is not going to get the job done.
We've recently launched the new online platform of LABoral, Art and Industrial Creation Centre, in Spain. LABoral exists only for approximately four years. In such a short time, they have organized more than 40 exhibitions, presenting more than 700 artworks and invited approximately 600 artists. During that period thousands of images, texts and videos were created. LABoral exhibitions are overwhelming in terms of information. The new online platform had to reﬂect that proliferation of content while at the same time take in attention the visitor's online experience. The website that resulted from their new online strategy uses a minimal design, basically it lives from its content. The pace of the
What could be the beneﬁt for a museum or an art gallery to have their online audience grow? Why, for example, would they want to reach people who might never be able travel and visit their shows?
Rui Guerra: The main beneﬁt of having a large online audience is surely not to attract visitors to ofﬂine shows. An increasing online audience might lead to a raise of the number of ofﬂine visitors but we think that is just a side effect of something more relevant. There is a clear interest in consuming information and in experiencing art online. In 2008, people under-25s already spent 36% of their leisure time online. Art organizations realize that it is essential to tap into this audience in order to reach a younger and broader public. To adapt to this new audience is their urge. The beneﬁts are diverse and might be not only for the organizations but also for the public in general. For example, the artworks that are accessible to the public represent just the tip of the iceberg when compared to the collections owned by cultural organizations. Either from space limitations or any other reason a large amount of our culture is not easily accessible. Organizations are already publishing much of their collections online, the process has been slow mainly because most works need to be digitalized. Currently digitalization techniques are relatively cheap and governments have been funding a big part of this process so you can expect an increase in speed. Nobody can predict the impact of this process but you can expect big changes. Think for example what Taschen has done in its early period when it published less known artworks in a magazine format.
The full beneﬁts of an online audience can only be harvested once organizations realize that websites are not just publishing channels but more importantly they are interactive platforms that allow audiences to engage with art in unique ways. The nature of an online experience is radically different from an ofﬂine one.
It cannot be expected that art originally made to be hanged on a wall will perform equally good on a screen. Adapting artworks that were made with one medium in mind to another medium does not always result well. The full potential of a medium can only be explored by works that have been conceived with that medium in mind. Such artworks are no longer rare and in fact there has been an impressive proliferation of digital artists communities making works that can only be fully perceived once experienced online. These art forms surely deserve more attention.
Over the past few years, curators, artists, other individuals or institutions have experimented with setting up galleries that exist purely online. Is that an experience you'd regard as meaningful and timely?
Rui Guerra: Yes there has been important precedents. Adaweb and runme.org are two examples that ﬁrst come to my mind. Runme.org is an online repository for software art which in a way represents an important generation of software artists. There also have been successful initiatives run by cultural organizations, such as, the Intermedia Art by the Tate and Artport by the Whitney Museum. However, once artists control both the means of production and distribution, as it is often the case with software art, one might question the role of institutions or even the role of online exhibitions. We have participated in an exhibition organized by JODI where these concerns where dramatically expressed. As curators of the show, the duo decided that no computers would be presented in the gallery. Instead a silent manifestation was organized where the URLs of all projects were paraded in gigantic banners throughout the streets of Dordrecht in the Netherlands. Art projects that are available online can be easily accessible as long as their internet address is known. Some of these projects have been created taking in mind an audience that would access them from their own computer, so it is logical to question the typical white cube scenario.
Consciously or not these works are deﬁnitively reshaping the relationship between artists, cultural organizations and the public.
You recently won ﬁrst prize in the competition ARTE 2.0 VOCENTO: the art of exhibiting art online. Your proposal "Everybody is a curator" challenges current hierarchies in the art world and explores new forms of interaction and participation among the general public. Can you tell us more about the project and what you tried to achieve with it?
Rui Guerra: The proposal Everybody is a curator is integrated in a long term research focused on the relationship between software and curating. The prize was quite important for INTK not only in ﬁnancial terms but also as an impulse to experiment with techniques and approaches for which we might not have an obvious business model. We think it is important for artists to explore alternative ways of presenting and distributing their work. In a nutshell, the proposal explored the notion that websites cannot be perceived as isolated islands and in fact they are nodes of a larger network. To give an example, INTK has been developing a series of creative interventions meant for existing websites. So rather than presenting works on our website, we prefer to install our projects in a guest website for a speciﬁc amount of time. This approach introduces several novelties. We can reach different audiences depending on which website the work is installed on. The website regular online audience has certain expectations, they are accustomed to the interface and aesthetics so the changes that our interventions introduce often create a strong impact.
For example, last November there was a national protest in the Netherlands against planned cuts in government arts funding. In order to increase the awareness among an online audience, we released a script that could be included in any website. The code literally tilted the website in order to reveal the national campaign in the background. To our surprise in less than 24h several organizations and individuals had their website tilted. We are quite fascinated about this approach. While we should be searching for a renowned gallery to represent our work, we prefer to spend our time checking websites that we would like to run our scripts on. In terms of audience numbers, it might be more interesting to show our work on google.com than let's say at moma.org but until now cultural institutes have been more receptive to our interventions than other organizations.
Is there any contemporary art institution you think is in need of a serious
Rui Guerra: Haha! Half a year ago, we made a survey of the 100 most visited museums and inspected their websites. You can still ﬁnd the screenshots in a Flickr set. We think that most of them are in urgent need of help. But seriously, creating an online strategy means to work closely with an organization, so rather than pick up the desperate cases we would prefer to work with organizations that challenge us. We imagine that eyebeam.org would be a great place to experiment and try out new models.
On the other hand, we have been increasingly interested in online platforms for recurrent events, such as, festivals and biennales. It strikes us, this approach of creating an new website for each edition of a festival. We really would love to see a platform that could evolve along with the festival. Besides that, we think such events are an intensive social experience and that online platforms could play a larger role before, during and after the event.
And one that sets the example?
Rui Guerra: I do not think that there is any cultural organization that can be a role model in its entire online strategy. There are several isolated initiatives that can be praised. The videos published on the Tate channel work really well online. They are short and engaging. I've been watching them for a while now and I can't get enough. Ubuweb, which is not an institution but an endeavor of a small group of people, have done an amazing job in terms of publishing art related content. It has become an essential tool for any art educator. One could say that, they are the art wikileaks. Guys if you are listening; backup all that data and release it on a peer-to-peer network before is too late. Google art project is at the same time encouraging and disappointing. It is nice to see museums open up in this way but quite disappointing to see that google approaches all information with an standard methodology. To google it does not seem to make any difference whether we are talking about the earth, the human body or art. I could go on mentioning isolated initiates but these are just pieces of a puzzle that no one has managed to put neatly together into a cohesive online strategy.
Justin Lui trained as an architect before earning an MFA degree from the UCLA Design | Media Arts in Los Angeles where i met him last Spring. He also has experience in web design, DJing and music production. He's so versatile, i wouldn't know whether i should define him as an interaction designer, media artist or architect. It probably doesn't really matter. Justin Lui is developing programmed and interactive spaces that act at the scale of the spectator's body. He is also part of Defectikons, a team of media artists with whom he has co-created media installations and music projects.
When we first talked to each other he had just dismantled the amazing Superficial Superglow: OPENINGS, a storefront installation facilitated by UCLA Architecture & Urban Design plus UCLA Design | Media Arts, which was built into the wall of the Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions gallery on Hollywood Blvd's 'Walk Of Fame'. The illuminated prototype glows in intensity according to the motion of passersby. On the street side, LCDs were displaying animated text remembering exhibitions culled from the 30-year history of LACE, while LCDs on the interior of the gallery showed text derived from artist Douglas McCulloh's '60,000 Photographs in Hollywood' describing characters encountered on Hollywood Blvd. Later on, when Justin told me about Animate Field, his MFA Thesis Project at UCLA Design | Media Arts, i thought it might be a good opportunity to interview him.
I think the first thing I would do with an expanded budget would be to expand the scale...! A project like Animate Field could really benefit from being enlarged to a more expansive field, to get closer to the infinite Ganzfeld-like spatial condition that James Turrell - for example - has in some of his work.
I'd also love to continue using the digital fabrication tools that were used in Superficial Superglow: OPENINGS, technologies such as CNC milling, vacuum-forming and 3D printing; all of which don't come cheaply. Also, I've recently begun experimenting with bend sensors, so that might come into my work at some point. The opposite of a bend sensor is arguably muscle wire (shape memory alloy), which is a material I'd also like to explore.
So if money were no object, I would essentially put the money towards making my work more immersive, more formally engaging, and more tactile.
Animate Field requires the involvement of the body far more than your other installations. Is it something you are keen to explore even further?
Yeah, the direct bodily engagement of that piece was a bit of a left turn compared to my previous work, but I also see it as a continuation of earlier investigations. For example, Superficial Superglow: OPENINGS (and some prior projects) used bodily presence as a catalyst for interaction, but Animate Field added to that by incorporating the issue of direct contact with the body. This sense of touch is something I'd like to develop in future work, possibly with things like muscle wire and bend sensors.
About participation with Animate Field, I noticed that audiences were evenly split: older people tended to stay outside the cloud of fibers, while younger people (say, in their 20's and younger) were much more open to wading into the fibers. The choice between observing from outside the thicket of fibers and participating inside it probably wasn't about the fear vs. embrace of technology, as the fibers themselves looked more like a natural plant-like substance than something mechanical and intimidating. Instead, I just chalk it up to the participant's sense curiosity vs. personal inhibition. What happened often was that one brave soul would enter the fiber cloud, play with the fibers, then others would follow inside - like a chain reaction. Sometimes it became a shared experience between strangers. I didn't really anticipate this sort of sociability in Animate Field, but it was gratifying to see.
Another thing I observed was that the fibers would collect and stick together into branching structures after several days of having people pass through and comb them with their hands. At first I tried to 'correct' this by going in to the thicket to untangle the fibers, but I soon decided to let these forms accumulate because I realized that the installation wasn't a defined discrete form (as designers are accustomed to creating), but instead was a set of conditions for a formal structure to emerge over time. It was a 'socially generative' formal mechanism as opposed to an explicitly designed form.
Water Clouds of Light looks like a remarkably simple installation. Some water jugs, a few light bulbs. Is the work really as straight-forward as i just made it sound?
Yes, I wanted it to have a clear and direct reading. It's an unfussy installation; simple, serene, but not static as the lights 'breathe' in and out in a way that is life-like.
Compared to my other work, I think Water Clouds of Light stands apart in a couple of ways: it has a stated allusion to the natural world, and it runs autonomously as opposed to being specifically interactive (which some people found refreshing considering the contemporary disposition for interactivity and responsiveness).
Many of the works in your portfolio have been devised for safe, closed exhibition spaces. Superficial Superglow: OPENINGS, however, was built into the exterior wall of an art gallery right on the famous Hollywood Blvd. Are you more comfortable in closed exhibition spaces or do you rather welcome the challenge of installing your work in contexts where you have less control over its surrounding (light, public, weather, etc)?
I see the value in both situations. A lot of my installations are dependent on the control of environment-related factors like light levels and physical access, so I like the degree of control in a gallery. But I also find that public spaces present an opportunity to engage a larger audience; one that isn't pre-disposed to look for art, which means there's a greater potential to surprise people (provided the piece has the conceptual clarity required to connect them in a meaningful way).
Since it was a double-sided installation, OPENINGS actually addressed audiences in both types of situations; gallery visitors inside Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions (LACE gallery), and passersby on Hollywood Blvd. The materials and construction were almost identical on both sides of the glass wall, but the experience on either side was different because the LCD data content was different for each side, and the sensors of the lighting-interaction system were exclusively aimed at the street to capture the movement of pedestrians.
There were some serious physical challenges on the exterior side, as you hinted at. With the security gate that rolled down every night, it was a tight and narrow space to build in to. Also, that area of Hollywood is a little bit seedy, so vandalism was always a concern. We actually had one of our ultra-sonic sensors stolen - twice!
What have you learnt from the Superficial Superglow: OPENINGS experience?
That project was a great experience for me and my partners: Andrea Boeck and Jihyun Kim. The three of us formed a well-balanced and even-tempered team. I learned several things, including the value of maintaining that balance and good temper, and the importance of visual and conceptual clarity in a publicly-sited interactive piece. That was probably the most important thing, that interactive installations generally need to be designed and calibrated to express clearly to the participants what the interaction is; what they are being prompted to do, what the rewards or results are, etc. Clear communication, essentially.
Since the project was in a public space with a constant supply of test subjects, we were able to do some on-site testing and observe passersby triggering and relating to the interaction system. Consequently, we were able to tune the sensing, lighting and display systems to try to maximize the project's ability to communicate and interact.
I also gained some valuable experience with managing and executing a fairly large interactive installation involving multiple technical systems and multiple outside parties (various UCLA departments, the gallery, suppliers, and so on).
Who are the artists or architects who inspire you today?
Creators of otherworldly atmospheres like Olafur Eliasson, James Turrell... Tara Donovan for the accumulative formal quality in her work... United Visual Artists, whose work represents to me an ideal marriage between behavioral electronics, physical space and people... realities:united, who also do great work combining electronic interaction and animation with physical architecture... Toyo Ito's dynamic installations and structures from the late 1980's and 1990's, which pioneered a lot of the qualities I see in dynamic and interactive architecture today... Toshio Iwai, Tokujin Yoshioka, Scott Snibbe, and more.
You are also part of DEFECTIKONS::, a collective creating works that blend the architecture, design, visual art and sound disciplines. Can you tell me a few words about your role in DEFECTIKONS?
The Defectikons are a group of three partners; Chris McCullough and Shaheen Seth. I was one of two DJs, and I also shared the work on installation design and assembly, graphic design and music production. What happened fairly often was that I would work iteratively, refining things towards an end while the other two partners often created great beginnings.
Our media-installation projects were really fun and great to learn from. For us, they were a happy combination of architecture with DJing and video, like humble precursors to the Daft Punk pyramid.
At this point our creative energy has been refocused into a musical band, with the addition of two other members.
What have you been doing since I met you last Spring in Los Angeles?
I graduated from UCLA Design | Media Arts a few months ago, and have been working on various endeavors: teaching graphic design, web design, and physical computing; making project submissions with my OPENINGS partners; and showing Water Clouds of Light at a couple of light-art exhibitions. Next I'll be working with Variate Labs and Miles Kemp (who co-wrote the book Interactive Architecture) to develop next-generation interfaces and interactive spatial architecture projects.
Yes! Hamburg! i didn't see it coming either.
Because i had wrongly assumed in the past that the size of a German city was proportionate to the importance of its airport, i was astonished to read in wikipedia that Hamburg is the second-largest city in Germany (after Berlin). Well, the place might not have Munich's fancy airport but it does have some arresting buildings in construction, an impressive warehouse district, the super popular Fritz drinks and a gallery which inaugurates a series of articles that will focus on some of the most exciting art galleries i got to visit over the course of my life as a happy blogger. I went to heliumcowboy only once. I read they had a show of Boris Hoppek's work, I won't fuck with you tonight, so i took the train from Berlin and on my way back i kept wondering "How come there's no space like that in the German capital?"
I doubt there are many galleries like heliumcowboy anywhere else either. First there's that name. Charming and puzzling. Not even an interview with the gallery director has helped me uncover its origin. Then of course there's the artists the space represents. Since its opening in 2003, heliumcowboy artspace has been showcasing artists 'who are capable of pushing boundaries, are a little underground and whose aesthetic is the forecast of art.' Click through their list of artists and you'll get the point.
Finally, heliumcowboy does openings that go way beyond tepid wine, polite conversations and bags of crisps. Each new exhibition is accompanied by live music, multimedia and performance relating to the the themes of the exhibition.
I asked Jörg Heikhaus, the gallery director (click this way if you read german), to tell us what makes heliumcowboy such a unique and fantastic art space:
The 'about' page of the gallery defines heliumcowboy as a "hybrid cross of traditional gallery and urban exhibition lounge". I hope you will excuse my ignorance but what is an urban exhibition lounge exactly? Which role does it fulfill?
We are a traditional gallery in terms of our understanding towards the representation of artists - supporting them in any way possible, establishing them in the art world and subsequently on the market. In this context, "traditional" means that we understand and respect the processes, the knowledge- and business-demands of the industry we're a part of. The "urban exhibition lounge" sounds a bit dusty after doing this already for 6 years, but it still stands for the way we present us and our artists whenever we do shows or fairs or any other kind of exhibitions: our guests shall feel comfortable in an environment we create jointly with the artists for a young, urban generation. But you are right, after 6 years of proving our point we could shorten this whole sentence to one word: gallery.
Jörg Heikhaus, the founder of heliumcowboy is (along with many other talents) a graffiti artist himself. How does his practice inform/influence the selection of artists who exhibit at HC?
It's just history, the background we come from. I have no time to do art myself any longer, and the last time I stood at a wall is almost 20 years ago. So it is a "was", amongst many different things I did over the years. But because Graffiti has become a vital part of contemporary art, my past is helpful: I can fully appreciate what is happening on the streets today and how it has developed in the past years. For me, a deep understanding of the culture, ideally mixed with own experiences in Graffiti, are a prerequisite for working with Urban Art from a gallery perspective.
Many of the artists represented by heliumcowboy could lazily be described as 'street artist'. Do you think that this expression "street artist" does justice to the artworks the gallery exhibits and sells?
Many of our artists "could be lazily described as ..." doing what they are best at and what we think is extraordinary and exciting about these individuals. Only few have actual roots in street art. What they all share though is a new approach to what is contemporary art, and street art and the accompanying cultural and social effects are a part of it. We started to label this as "New Urban Contemporary". We feel that one sums it up best.
Did the recent obsession with all things Banksy have any effect on the gallery and the artists associated with it? Have these emerging artists become more appetizing for the art market? Did you get more attention from the more 'traditional' contemporary art press as well?
Urban art, Graffiti, Street art - the amazement started to cease once the markets crumbled. And traditional press is always just interested in big names, and we can't really offer celebrity hype. There are only few places reserved in the glamour section for the Banksy's of today, but there are enough deck chairs in the sun for the best, most unique and hardest working artists. We try to make sure that our artists get all support necessary to focus on their work. And besides establishing new voices in art we also know that successful communication and promotion is not a pure privilege of the "traditional" art media any longer.
How important is it for heliumcowboy to have a booth at the Basel art fair?
To be seen outside of Hamburg, to get to know international collectors and curators, to establish a world-wide reputation - fairs are a vital part of that. Basel, despite it's small town feeling (compared to the 2 other, most important art fair locations, Miami and New York), is like a magnet for the nomadic art enthusiast. Having a booth at a premium art fair in Basel like VOLTA or SCOPE is key to being successful in Europe.
heliumcowboy artspace exhibits mostly emerging artists. Isn't that a bit risky for a middle-size city like Hamburg? Isn't the Hamburg public more used to traditional art and less likely to follow your more adventurous selection?
That's exactly why we do art fairs and exhibitions abroad. Hamburg is a good city to be headquartered with the gallery, but the contemporary art market focuses much more on exciting cities like New York, London, Berlin, etc. Also, we mainly work with international artists, this means we bring something to the city that helps improve Hamburg's reputation and is something people from here don't see that often, unless they travel.
As long as we get the visibility we need on a world-wide scale, we couldn't be happier than being in Hamburg - it's a fine city, with a vibrant art scene, good people and the best football club in the world (St. Pauli of course). There is no such thing as Hype, which is helpful if you want to develop something sustainable and of high quality. The only drawbacks are the many traditional art buyers (give 'em a painting of a ship in the harbour any time) and the lack of support from the public authorities. For the senate, contemporary art is never as important as the next musical.
heliumcowboy's website is in english. Does that constitute a clue of the international clients and audience the gallery hopes to attract?
For years now, heliumcowboy artspace is an internationally recognised gallery. We have almost 60.000 unique visits every month at heliumcowboy.com. Only 15-20 % are from Germany. Most of our artists are not German. The majority of our sales are to international clients. Since 2006, we attend three major art fairs in Miami, New York and Basel every year - but not one in Germany. Our newsletter is bi-lingual, but because our website is more like a magazine with new posts every other day it would be impossible to translate with the staff we have.
More generally how's the contemporary culture like in Hamburg? Does it work like some kind of satellite of trendy Berlin or does it have its own taste, drive and dynamics?
As I said - there is no Hype in Hamburg. It is calm and unagitated. But it definitely has it's own dynamics and flavours, and this created a unique, large cultural scene, be it in music or arts. Once you've tasted it, you won't be needing Berlin any more ...
But seriously: you can't compare these cities. Both are totally different. There seems to be more sugar in Berlin, that's why so many people move there ...
Can you explain us the name? heliumcowboy?
Over a couple of beers, because that's how it came up... however, I like the image of the hard-working, earth-bound cowboy in contrast to helium, an inert gas, that (at least as the result of a physical chain reaction) makes the stars shine ...
Thanks Jörg (and Nadine who helped me set up the interview!)
Don't worry 'bout a thing (Being Alex Diamond) runs until November 13 at heliumcowboy in Hamburg, Germany.
No one dons the moustache like Fernando Llanos. He's a video artist, a musician, a writer, a blogger, a curator, he makes drawings i'd like to steal, he's the über macho-looking Mexican guy who walks around the city with a chihuahua in his bag. He also produces tv shows, works on Animasivo --a festival of animation in Mexico, and the moto of his own radio programme is: "Porque no hace falta hablar de arte para hablar de arte" ("There's no need to talk about art in order to talk about art"). When he's not performing Fernando Llanos is always impeccably dressed. Come to think of it, he's probably the one and only media artist whose sense of style i admire. Fernando is from Mexico city but we met in Brazil. Women were offering him drinks, men were trying to trade shirts with him. We saw each other again a few days ago in Mexico where i was staying for the Transitio_mx festival.
Fernando gained fame with the films and messages he projects over public spaces around the world. He carries all his equipment on his back, on a bike or on a skateboard. His projections are site-specific. For his first video performance, he projected airplanes crashes on the airport of Porto Alegre in Brasil. He built a superhero aura and mythology around his performances. When he screens, he's not Fernando Llanos anymore, he is Videoman. He's got the posters, the figurine, the attire, the cool gadgets, he even has the superpet. As he says: Just like Batman has his robin, Superman has his dog Krypto, Videoman has Chamaco!! Recently Videoman was at the Mapping Festival in Geneva and introduced the crowd to the Videohuahua, a chihuahua screening angry chihuahua barkings outside an art gallery in the center of the Swiss city.
I'm glad i'm gettting back on the interview road (the last one dates back to March) with Fernando Llanos:
I read somewhere that one of your moto is "Se feliz: consume vídeo". Which kind of video could make us happy? And how?
The slogan of my website has been, all along those 9 years BE HAPPY CONSUME VIDEO.
Ten years ago or so, when i was starting to do some widespread cultural spam in order to promote my video exhibitions, i was looking for a sentence that i could identify with and that people would remember easily. There are slogans in Mexican publicity that promote the consumption of vegetables or water (healthy things): "Eat fruit and vegetables", for example. So i decided to create mine, right from the start i wanted it to kick off with two concepts that are important to me: To BE (to be something in life, whatever you like as long as it enables you to exercize your existence) and HAPPINESS (i see myself as a hopeless eudaimonist).
The slogan contains two intentions. The first one is to underline with humour the consumption of what i produce: video, and i do it using the same sentence tone as advertising, at least the one legally handled in here. Here slogans such as "eat fruit and vegetables" can only be part of some advertising campaign.
But the real motivation is also a more complex one, or at least one that is more refined, it is the one i mention in the conclusion of my thesis "Video online: New Spaces, New Narratives" where i summarize the work i made with video and internet. I do it this way:
"The video format online becomes more flexible and participatory, and this concerns as much the artists as the public itself.
I'm looking for new strategies that would connect my production with people, it seems to me that the abyss between the sacred art of the museum and the oi polloi is getting wider. I think that art needs to connect more directly with all kinds of people or at least that art should be looked at with new eyes, and to achieve that we need new, less complacent and less passive strategies.
Mi battle cry has been so far "Be happy, consume video". If the word "video" takes its origins in the first person of the indicative present of the latin verb and means "I see", the proposal is therefore that everyone consumes what they want to see and share online their own iconosphere. Besides, in a country without memory, we should make our own history and show it online to the whole country and to the rest of the world. Let's stop importing references and which medium is more adapted to that than video?
I'm interested in shared reflections. Over the past four years i found confirmation of my belief: over 1000 persons, of any type of profile, from every part of the world, have received video each week by email. And over 3 millions visits on my webpage make me think that there are ways to achieve this.
The future cannot be only for artists, nor can thesis be solely for university graduates or members of ecclesiastical councils."
The funny thing is that i wrote this text just as i was working on the first drafts of Videoman. Somehow i see similar intentions and common grounds.
During one of your presentations at the festival arte.mov in Brazil you defined your video performances as 'urban acupuncture.' Can you explain us what this involves? Do cities really need to be submitted to acupuncture?
What i do is indeed a performance but i would rather call them Video-interventions. They consist in the projection of moving videos in the city. I chose specific location where a dialogue between the space and the screening can take place. I've done over 30 video-interventions in 5 different cities in 3 yeas. Each of them aims to be different from the others, to show a peculiar way to interact with people or with a specific zone, you can watch the videos online.
This is how i describe them in the catalog:
The content of the projections can be linked to the history of the place, to recent events related to it and/or local reflections of popular interest. Involving passersby is part of both the action and the art piece through a 'closed circuit' system (recording of the video, manipulation, editing and projection in real time).
These video-interventions and their recording create new materials that, in their turn, become into the raw material that starts to process, exhibit and broadcast online in order to give way to a shared reflection with people who may or may not be related to the art world.
I called Videoman's video interventions "urban acupuncture" because i thought it was a good metaphor of the way they work in the city. They are short, sometimes they are disturbing and are a bit incisive. I believe that in some way they can help to make public space a "healthier" place through a brief catharsis. This "cure" can be a very subjective apreciación but it seems to me that it can be applied to anyone who works in public space and believe that they can contaminate the public with something of their proposal.
The term was inspired by one of Guillermo Gómez-Peña's performances, the Mad-mex. We met in the Bienal de Mercosul in 2005, when i was presenting the first version of Videoman, he was 'de-colonizing' the body of a woman who was holding the flags of the countries that invaded with acupuncture needles. That's where i first thought of calling my interventions that way.
Let's remember that the original and full name of the project is:
[ vi video ]
Later on, however, the project was more closely related to the terms Videoman and urban acupuncture.
Obviously i believe that cities need this sort of urban acupuncture. Graffiti, sticker guerrilla, radio pirate, etc. Each of these manifestations that co-exist in a city and that take place without asking for the permission of the authorities are, in my view, necessary to the development of a healthy cultural life. If one only relies on the established channels and spaces, where and how can new discourses be inserted that are likely to refresh the existing ones? I believe that our megalopolis needs some kind of participative cure. How can we appropriate spaces and make them ours if everything is left in the hands of the government or of corporate advertising? As i explained in one of my talks, i believe in the sentence of Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata: "The Land Belongs to Those Who Work It". That's how public space should be understood, at least as far as people who dedicate their life to art and interested in sharing it with new audiences are concerned.
One takes some actions, even if they scandalize or make people feel uncomfortable, that's a sign that something is happening and it is better than to resign yourself to the indifference or the polite silence of the public who visit museums. I think that the punk voice, the voice of denunciation, of the DIY spirit can help understand the nature of that acupuncture.
Our cities are overwhelmed with visual stimuli: billboards, neon signs, information boards, etc. How do you compete with that and get passersby attention during your video performances?
The starting point is not to regard them as competition, artists use other elements such as physicality or movement to attract the attention. Sometimes even the outfit or the means of transport can be used to leave an indentation in the memory.
We can not discuss in terms of competition because the advertising world always has had much higher budgets. One has to be able to turn things upside down. Unlike publicity, Videoman's video projections are site-specific, they tie in better with their context and exploit scandal better. A publicity is most often visible in many places and they will eventually be replaced by others. The projections i make attempt to attache themselves and explode within a very concrete space.
Besides, as far as attracting the attention is concerned, i have an advantage. I can be politically incorrect and show things that publicity can't show. For example, i can project pornography in the street or a kiss on the prostitutes working in the red district of a city, or the planes that miss their landing in the airport. This is a discursive luxury, not anyone can use it, you have to be cynical and have guts to do something like that. You have to embrace the challenge and very often even risk your body in order to create an action so deeply poetical that it will remain in people's meme, turn into a myth and almost become word of mouth.
The most fascinating characteristic of Videoman for me is all the mythology you build around it: the figurines, bicycle, posters that end up in movie theater, etc. Is this part of a larger strategy?
Exploring this mythification of the character has been extremely fun and constructive, i was able to broaden the imagery of Videoman's field of action. The project is in fact based on highlighting ideas, it's not as if i'd spend my life projecting images. I do the projections and then document them (both on line and off line) and that's what gives a sense to the whole research behind the project, but i've enjoyed very much the possibility to lucubrate and expand myself further in the mythification of a super-hero.
Besides, working along these principles has enabled me to copy marketing strategies that help superheroes maintain their image.
In reality, as i said in the talk, i always wanted to be a superhero. When i was a kid i used to collect the comics of Superman, Batman and Spiderman, my first drawings represented this kind of warriors, a mix between super-heroes, Mad Max and the luchadores. When i was 9, i was selling at school the reproductions of drawings i was making of He-Man and the Transformers. If you analyze Videoman, you will see that he was be as basic as Batman, he's a guy with tools, discipline and a lot of guts.
Therefore i already had the fascination for these stories, those media, those objects when i was just a kid. Expanding the project using objects that respond to this sort of marketing strategy has enabled me to broaden the spectrum of fascination and empathy that the character can generate.
I think that's the reason why people associate the project more with the word VIDEOMAN than with its original name, it is easier to associate the whole project with the images of the character in action than with the interventions themselves.
Or are these declinations of your persona just ideas you get 'on the spur of the moment'? My favourite were the moustache and the figurine episodes. Would you mind elaborating on those two?
As i explained you in the previous question, when i started working on this project, i was convinced that the most important element was the projection of the video in the street, but i gradually realized that the character of VIDEOMAN was taking the lead role, that many of his intentions could be summed up in his harnesses and his equipment, that's how i started thinking i should give way to the desire i had always had to be a superhero. It was very simple, as a kid, i used to read many comics and i always aspired to be a superhero. As time passed i realized that in the art world one can invent whatever they want and as one generate their own bubble and enjoys staying inside it, why shouldn't i create my own superhero?
But that was a slow and gradual process. The first version just coined the name VIDEOMAN, and it fits the postcard quite well. After that i started working more on the idea of a garment and attire that would befit a superhero, borrowing from the strategies of the superheroes i found most interesting: the poster, the figurines, a comic to explain the project, etc. I would like to keep on following along those lines. I'd like to shoot a trailer in 35 mm of a film that doesn't exist and keep on building fiction around the character.
In the beginning, the moustache was a tribute to Felipe Ehrenberg, the first conceptual artist in México, i was curating his 50 year retrospective for the Museum of Modern Art in Mexico City and it seemed to me that after 3 years of work, it was high time to come up with an action that would draw attention to the complicity we had together. His moustache is a key characteristic of his personality. I kept it and shaved it only the day after the inauguration.
One day i read that his moustache was a tribute to Emiliano Zapata, then somehow I also felt it had some similarities with the character of Videoman. I therefore decided that for some versions, the character would wear this kind of revolutionary emblem, as the majority of Zapatistas wore moustaches and fought in guerrilla.
The figurines of Videoman that we issed were commissioned to someone whose sole occupation is to make superheroes. He sells them at the exit of Metro stations or on the main square, he has Superman, Batman, but also some Mexican superheroes such as El Santo, Chapulin Colorado, etc. I asked the sculptor to adapt in figurine the pictures in which i appear as Videoman, i loved the way he enlarged my features and misinterpreted concepts. I think that there is some beauty in the way knowledge or concepts can be adulterated. A + B does not always equal C, it can be Ab or aB. I like to see the subtle conceptions that an unofficial expert of heroes can have being reflected in an object that reminds me of the cult we raise to those characters. The ones of Starwars, the Marvel or the Manga. People do not collect figures of saints anymore, nowadays they almost pray to these new icons.
You collaborate also with commercial brands. Can you give us a couple of examples and explain the kind of limit(s) you impose on those collaborations? When do you accept a purely commercial commission and what makes you reject another one?
I do a lot of commercial works, i call them creative exercises, they help me stay in shape. Making a DVD for a client like ABSOLUT requires a rigor and technical ability that i might not look for otherwise. Creating a tv programme that both the producer and the channel will like is a big challenge, because in the art world, people tend to answer only to themselves, no matter how good or bad that can be. I think that making exercises that start with limits is always healthy from a creativity point of view, and the world of advertising is full of those limits, themes and contents.
I have a video production company that allows me to undertake any type of commercial work, designing web pages, shooting video clips or making of for movies. I don't put the Fernando Llanos firm under these works. I don't want to associate any brand or commercial project with my name nor with my artistic projects. Nike wanted to hire me to use Videoman as part of a strategy of guerrilla advertising. I obviously declined. I don't think these things and worlds should mix up. Instead, i sold them a videoclip and everyone was happy.
Of course the main reason why i accept these work is the budget they give me access to. It feels like going to school and being paid huge amounts of money so that i can learn and train. Making this kind of concessions allows me to increase the competence and freedom i have for my own artistic projects. Working one week on a commercial project enables me to live well during 3 months while working full time on my projects as an artist or cultural producer. The most important thing is that you never lose sight of your priorities, that you are aware that your production as an artist is above everything else.
You are preparing a book on Ciudad Satélite. Can you tell us what the book will be like? How you came to be interested in this suburban area?
Satélite, the book (Historias suburbanas de la Ciudad de México - Suburban stories of Mexico City) is a publishing projects that touches upon themes of architectural, artistic and scientific popularization. Its aim is to investigate the destiny of an emblematic suburb for the middle class, a pioneer at its origins but which grew more conservative over time. It seeks to crystallize the history and memory of its people, places, idiosyncrasies and identity. This is illustrated with the collaboration of artists who live in that area.
The publishing projects hopes to contribute to the awareness of an urban phenomenon, the middle class suburb, created as a progressive and modern challenge by one of México's most famous architects. It did however evolved into a serial and uniform city, based on maximizing the rent and on a conservative social project with a dose of political innovation.
It aims to enrich the visual, architectonic and cultural landmark that is the Ciudad Satélite for Mexico City. Ciudad Satélite, almost 50 years after its construction, features a peculiar wealth that has been scarcely identified and valued: its architectural legacy and its complex urban planing, the iconography of the so-called "spatial era" that lead to its foundation, its aesthetic that blends modernism and consumer kitsch.
The idea is to crystallize the memory of the area, through the story and history of the life of its inhabitants, but also the advertisements that promoted the communities at the end of the '50s, as well as the narratives of "external observers" of this new suburban culture. All of that will undoubtedly contribute to the promotion to the enrichment of local cultures.
Eight years ago i decided to propose the realization of an experimental documentary about the Satellite City, as a thesis project, in order to graduate from the Centro Nacional de las Artes in Fine Arts. My interest for the theme was at first to get to know my roots and reconcile myself with my origin. But i was also fascinated by the fact that in a city of something like 20 million inhabitants, one of the biggest on the planet, there is a specific way of being that can be identified, mythified inside and by Mexico City. It is something that, in my view, reveals a cultural contribution that many Chilangos are not ready to acknowledge yet.
I was born in D.F., but from zero to 10 year old i was living in Valle Dorado, a satellite city of Satélite. I grew up, as some say, inside the aegis of the satellite culture. Before i started investigating the issue, satellite was for me a symbol of the promises of development that were never realized (the beginning of the famous post-modernity), exquisite ambassadors of the kitsch and the suburban aesthetics, the part of Mexico City that most aspired to be yankee and the characters with their provincial aura who go through the capital as satellites.
I had a series of abstract beliefs that did not really fit into the picture, the only thing i knew for sure was that inhabitants of Satellite city were among the few easily recognizable people in this big city: the way they dress, talk, even their hair was peculiar, different and identifiable, just like people from Tepito or Coyoacán (other neighbourhoods with a strong personality in DF.) A 'being' distant from the omnivore and homogeneous fauna of Mexico City.
In order to realize the documentary i mentioned i worked on a little book i called "satellite logbook". It's a booklet where i wrote down the information i was gathering: cuttings, drawings, statistics, drafts, ideas that would help me unfold the mysteries of Satellite City. A mere depository of information without any form nor pretense.
I interviewed some personalities living in the region. I managed to get fragments of documentaries and tv programs in which Satellite City appeared. I read in the Hemeroteca Nacional all the Ecos de Satélite (Satellite's Echo), the mythical newspaper of the area. The investigation grew so much that i never shot that video and graduated with another project.
Four years later the start of the investigation i met Uriel Waizel and we founded Satelín Torres, a project of urban renovation using the enhancement of local culture, a space within which unravel and promote everything about Satellite, an initiative which, in some way and 8 years later, has triggered this editorial project.
I must admit that what i admire the most among your artworks are the drawings. Can you select 3 of them and comment briefly each of them?
Thank you Régine, i'm happy that you like the drawings. I've been drawing as far as i can remember and i love to "think with the hands", as Ehrenberg called the act of drawing. Even if i've always drawn, it's only recently (and thanks to the publication of Cursiagridulce) that i've been invited to do exhibitions of drawings and not only of my work on video or online.
I'm going to comment three drawings from two different projects. The first one is a drawing about Videoman, it's called "Mapa mental" (Mental Map), the second and third one are from my book Cursiagridulce, one is called "Corazón" and the last one "Software included".
The first one, Mapa mental, is a drawing that helps me explain what comes into play in the version 4.0. of Videoman, the one i presented at Madrid Abierto. Drawings help me in my projects because i like fluid sketches and diagrams, they help me see all the information in just one look and help me give space to the complexity of the idea to be developed. In this specific case it helps me communicate with the rest of the team with whom i developed the harness. The engineer and the stylist rely on this drawing, it explains the concepts and the functions it should embody and from there they can make a proposal to me.
This drawing has three parts: the central one shows the breakdown of the equipment and the way it connects to its electrical electrical autonomy or dependence. On the left side, at the bottom, there is a proposal about how the system, in particular all the devices, can fit into the bicycle. On the right side are notes related to the outfit over a lucha libre doll.
This version in Videoman is particularly ecological, the electricity is generated by a dynamo activated when i pedal which, in turn, charges the battery. For this and with the intention of engaging further the public, a microphone enables people to talk and an open Bluetooth network enable the sharing of videos, speech and thoughts bubble appear just like in comics.
This is a large format drawing, the first drafts of the project were small but because the booklet had to move to the exhibition space, i decided to give more graphical formality (technically they are more sophisticated than a draft made with more spontaneity) and a larger dimension. In this way, the drawing kept its function, but it looks much better.
The drawing "Corazón" (Heart) is one of the oldest of Cursiagridulce, i made it while i was still at college. I decided that during one year i would stop to use big framed formats, and that i would focus on developing ideas that would work on the format of a book or notebook. It was the beginning of the 13 booklets i made over the course of 7 years and from which the book Cursiagridulce was born.
The blue and green marks are the impression of my nipples. Therefore the representation of the heart aims to be more or less at the 1:1 level. That would be the real size of my heart and above my breast-notebook float the women whom, until that day, i had loved the most. These are very synthetical drawings that where lights are contrasting on their faces and profiles.
Finally "Software included" is a drawing in which Ana Lucía is seen sleeping, she is the woman i have loved the most in my life, i was in love with her for 9 years, in a series of ups and downs i kidnapped her in France (where she was living with her boyfriend) and brought her to Barcelona to spend Christmas with me and then New Year's Eve in París, it was in 2001. The drawing represents a moment when she is sleeping and i feel deeply in love. I could not stop looking at her, i could spend hours watching her. I think that my way of misunderstanding love, the act of never being tired of contemplating is a ritual goes further than the intellect and it brings us up to the most basic of the world of encounters. The divine perception, in the communion with the other, and the unexplainable surprise they arise in us, a suspended sigh.
Because the theme of love and sex is a constant in my work, Ana Lucía appears in probably 70% of my works, not only in the Cursiagridulce drawings, but also in the videos of Videomails and Videoviajes. I should add that i immediately apply ink, without ever making any draft with a pencil. What is in the process of being built exists. That's why i like it, it's like video, raw, without rehearsal. Life doesn't allow a second take.
Your project Videoman has toured the world, not only because you were invited to show your work in many prestigious museums and cultural venues around the world but also because Videoman has inspired other works. Could you tell us something about the projects that owe so much to Videoman? Do not omit the naked version of your performances, please, please!
I like to share. The reason for that is very simple: i feel like i'm the result of other people who have shared with me. While growing up, i believe i acquired moral debts to other personalities and i'll probably never repay them enough. When i made the Videomails in 2000 several artists copied the model and referred to me in their websites.
With the Videoman project several artists did indeed ask for our advice, others just copied the model, not only the model of the device but also the structure deployed when selecting some spaces (as in the case of the Spanish naked "Videoman", see the newspaper cover below). We uploaded online right from the start all the information about the way to prepare the harness and how it works. Several people suggested i should patent or copyright it, but i always thought that the best thing that could happen would be that other people would copy and improve the model. After all, what matters isn't mostly the technological novelty but rather to be able to make the most of technological goodies that are already there. My contribution or stamp had more to do with the situations and contents generated than with the equipment only.
Mexico city is North America's oldest city. Nowadays, foreigners like me associate it with lucha libre, pulquerías, the Metropolitan Cathedral, traffic jams, etc. But why should we put the city on the new media art map? Can you name us a couple of events, galleries, institutions that support media art?
DF has a very vibrant life in terms of creation just like in any other megalópolis on the planet. The reality is that we have to fight for every square centimeter with the effect that the production has maintained a remarkable vitality. I'd say that as far as media art is concerned, we have key actors who keep on raising interests well beyond our frontiers. Arcangel Constantini has just been awarded the support of VIDA, Gilberto Esparza obtained it last year. Rafael Lozano-Hemmer and Manuel de Landa are other examples of key figures in new media, they are Mexican but have spread their wings in other countries.
There are spaces such as Laboratorio Arte Alameda that weaves wonderful links with other latitudes (for example the Video Game exhibition that Laura Baigorri curated for Laboral), and it acts as a space to get to know the local scene.
The Festival TRANSITIO is the strongest event of art and technology that we have and it seems to me that it is growing and improving with each editiion, let's see what they will propose us in 2010.
But most of all what i would like to highlight is that in general the technological discourse of the peripheries seems to be more critical and intertwined with real necessities of protest or almost survival, because one starts with lack, rather than with the excess. To give you an examples, Arcangel Constantini's famous Atari-noise which won the Festival Interference in France in 2001.
And more importantly can you think of other artists (using technology or not) from Mexico that i should add to my 'interview candidates' list?
Arcangel Constantini. Our most famous net artist.
Hector Falcón. Excellent multidisciplinary artist who works mostly with his body.
Rogelio Sosa. Great sound artist who likes noise.
Ivan Abreu. Cubano-Mexican artist who works fantastically with data and cables.
Rafael Lozano-Hemmer. You already know him, maybe you've even interviewed him. You can't go wrong with him :-P
Any upcoming project you could share with us?
Yes, this year i'd like to make a record with my band, mi:reyna. We've been rehearsing for a year and we want to start playing live. It's a challenge because i can't play the guitar and i'm learning how to while we are getting ready and rehearsing the songs. I want to believe that i can build something interesting and nice from my limits. I'd like to end this interview with that because i believe that this profession is full of freedoms and it's both fun and healthy to enjoy them. That's how i jumped from being a painter to being a video artist, that's how i started a book but ended up publishing 3 (two others are scheduled to be published.) I started doing video because it was the medium that joined image and sound and i want to see how far i can go with music. It's going to be one of my creative priorities in 2009.
A couple of years ago, Jiacong "jay" Yan completed his degree at the cradle of young talents that is UCLA Design|Media Arts Department. He lives in Los Angeles where he works as a media artist and designer.
Fresh from UCLA, Jay started exhibiting his installations and videos in galleries in the U.S., in Asia and in Europe as well. Let's see if i manage to get a few words from the most laconic artists i've ever come upon:
I decided to interview you for two reason. The obvious one is that i like your work.
Stealing Art, to put it simply, is my chinese cultural take on John Baltessari's famous piece, Singing Sol LeWitt
I was in Shanghai buying bootleg DVDs from a street vendor and noticed an unpopular movie had pictures of Angelina Jolie on the cover even though she was not in the movie. I asked the mechant why this was there if she was not in the movie, and he said, because her face sells more DVDs. I thought this was hilarious! Not only are they selling bootlegs, but they modify the cover art to popularize the movie.
When I got back to the US, the latest issue then of Art Forum featured a big article on the art market and predictions of the future. One article complained about artists, whose work can easily be duplicated, still limiting their editions to 3 in order to drive up individual prices but this prevents everyone except the economically wealthy to buy such works. Now I'm not trying to destroy the value of these video art pieces, it's more along the lines of how Murakami works. He produces so much toys and t-shirts that he makes very little on (apparently one painting sale is a match to his merchandising profits according to the MOCA curator) but they are still important to popularize his work. So I think of Stealing Art in much the same way. Collectors who always want the original with proof of authenticity will always buy the real work, why would a badly recorded dvd be as interesting to them as a collectable?
I actually intentionally tried to make it as bad as I can. It is the BADNESS of it that makes it something. I've seen projects by others who try to sell bootleg art, either downloaded from the internet or photographs of art, but they all try to pass off as the art work instead of a new art work. In each DVD, I made them in the exact style of a Chinese bootleg DVD you would find on the streets of Shanghai. You see the reflection off the TV of me behind the camera (referencing to the often seen man standing up at the movie theater at the bottom of the screen). The cover art is overly bright colored and with bold 3D letters (I was modeling them off porn DVD covers). The back of the DVDs are filled with non-sense text (Chinese bootlegs are filled with non-sense text to try to make them look more legitimate). I even included the thin plastic wrapping pouch that bootleg DVDs are sold in.
At the day of the opening, I knew two of the artists were going to be present because they were giving small talks, I set up a cardboard stand in front of the space with the bootlegs and people immediately started buying them. One was purchased for Guido van der Werve as a gift from his friend and I think he was kind of shocked because he immediately ran outside. I'm not entirely sure if he comprehended what was going on but he took one look and then went back in, not really talking to me. Marco Schuler was much more cool about it. He came up to me and bought a DVD himself, but complained that since he made the original video, I should give him a discount. He gave me his card telling me to get in touch with him but I'm afraid he wants to sue me. All the DVDs sold out in 30 minutes.
I really want to do this at the Shanghai Biennale actually, I think it would be great. I just don't know a way to get access to the videos they show before the opening...
Surely there must be more to being Chinese than surfing on the wave on the "Chinese art is hot' trend. So how do you navigate between two different countries so different? Do you show your artwork in China? Do you have a strong relationship with the art community over there?
Well, funny things happen when I show work overseas. I work out of the USA, my information is from the USA, but somehow they always find out I'm Chinese, so next to my name it would appear: Jay Yan (USA/CHINA) without me even saying anything.
I am not the expert on Chinese Contemporary Art, 90% of it stems from just long conversations about it with a Collector that likes me, Guan Yi, from Beijing.
Luckily he is one of the top Chinese Collectors with excellent tastes (and I'm not just saying that because he bought my work) and he really introduced me to Chinese Comtemporary Art. As I walked through his private collection, it was a complete history lesson on Chinese avant garde art. He introduced me to my heroes like his friend Ai Wei Wei and the works of Zhang Huan (whom you've written about next to my work, which I was flipping with joy about). He told me about the "China / Avant Garde" show in 1989 that was shut down by the Beijing Police and about how the artist Xiao Lu shot at her own installation. It sounded like an amazing time at which point I told him about this idea I had of graffiting Tian An Men square with time delayed paint so the paint wouldn't show up tills days later. The conversation got a little more serious and I understood the time was still not right for such a daring act.
A cab driver in Beijing once told me "when you are unknown, it's ok to experiment and do crazy things, just not political. When you are somewhat known, it's better to be safe, because they can still make you disappear and no one would care. When you are famous, then you are too well known and you can start doing whatever you want again.... but still be careful of the political stuff."
I do not show my work there as often but I help my friend setup her work in China sometimes and I always pretend to not speak a word of chinese because if you are a foreigner, they treat you better. They get you a translator, which doubles as your assistant, and they are way more willing to help you. The best part is, if they talk in front of me in chinese about how they are going to cut corners on the installation, I can catch them (sadly, this happens more than I would like). It's a weird system, you have to know who to bribe so you get the best work from their staff etc.
I left China at the age of 6 in 1990 so I can not make work about the culture, just make works about the things I find interesting from an outside perspective. Every time I go to Shanghai, I find funny things that the culture does. Like when I was young, I tried to go to a video game arcade in Shanghai and I got yelled at by all the men inside for trying to go to the arcade because children weren't allowed back then.
The installation Whisper looks extremely poetic
...but your description of the project is a bit laconic.
I try to not talk so much in my descriptions so makes interviews like this more interesting
How does it work technically?
I keep my description laconic to avoid people thinking about this question.
It works by placing speakers underneath a vase with flowers. The speaker vibrates the vase and the flower to audible frequencies. The base stand is then soundproofed to block out all sounds except those coming from the flowers. The Calla Lily flower was chosen because it's stiff stem carried the vibrations well, and the trumpet shape of the flower amplified the sound.
Physically, not really, the flowers are easy to replace as long as they are in season. If they are not, it's a nightmare running around the city trying to find them.
Semiotically, flowers have a long history in art. I try to reference both O'Keefe and Mapplethorpe in the piece, these flowers have such a strong context and simple form that it was really hard finding the appropriate sound to play through them.
Apart from flowers you also worked with meat in the past. What exactly attracts you with organic materials?
I wondered what butchers do when they're bored.
I don't think art is about how well you do or make something anymore, it's about how great your idea is and how to execute it in the best possible way.
Do you manage to live from your art?
I wish. Dynamic art requires computers, displays, cameras and the equipment cost for one piece already pushes a work past $5000 and that's before the artist and the dealer's share. Jennifer Steinkamp taught me how to package a work and set it up easily for collectors, but you have to be her to charge an amount that makes sense for everyone.
I help artists create detailed visualizations of their ideas for proposals or for direct art fabrication.
How much do you manage to control the way people interact with your work?
Hiring a pretty girl to come every now and then and interact with the piece.
Which kind of unexpected behaviour have you witnessed with your installations?
The piece "throw your hands up" specifically comments on how funny people interact when you remove the actual installation and place their behavior out of context. Most people just wave their arms in the air because they are too embarrassed in a gallery setting to do anything else really. The "we only come out at night" piece has attracted singing, people offering up their baby and women flashing their breasts at it
For unexpected interesting interaction with your art piece, serve alcohol,
Is there any place in the world where you'd love to project your interactive projections?
On the portrait of Mao @ Tian An Men Square,
Or on anything Pablo Valbuena plans to project onto, I had a great time at the last Today's Art projecting over his piece and we had a good laugh about it. I made a piece that was on wheels allowing me to project all over the city and interact with the people below. I then started projecting on the other art works at the show using my piece to "attack" their pieces. Some people really loved the idea of two projection pieces interacting, but this one girl yelled at me for 10 minutes about how I should be ashamed of myself.
I am now interested in my much more simplistic interactive projection pieces like pieces from the "projections for a large wall" series. I want to find some nice curved spaces, odd shaped walls to divide with 2 colors or a simple colored line that one can manipulate.
I've been friends with Christian Moeller and Casey Reas for almost 6 years now. They introduced me to art and really helped and encouraged me through my career. I went through a Bas Jan Ader phase for 2 years which threw me off because it was such an romantic emotional style of work that I had never done before. I watched Bas Jan Ader's piece "I am too sad to tell you" and thought this was the greatest art piece I have ever seen. Ai Wei Wei keeps me interested in contemporary chinese art. I'm currently on an Ellsworth Kelly kick .
Any upcoming project you could share with us?
I will no longer use the random() function in any of my future pieces.
I have an upcoming show at the new Di Yu Gallery in Shanghai.
I am currently trying to get my hands on a replica of the gun that shot Andy Warhol (the original is locked up at Riker Island in New York). I want to make short line of electronic toy guns that you can point at an art work and Andy Warhol, in his voice, will tell you whether it's art or not. Thus we can have a device that will finally tell us whether something is art or not. It's also kind of a homage to Xiao Lu's performance during the China \ Avant Garde show.
On February 6 to 9, VernissageTV will celebrate the publication of its 1000th video by inviting its fans to a party and a video marathon. The screening will take place online and at its new studio in Basel.
I doubt there are many people in the room who have never heard of VernissageTV. The online channel covers in a very professional and surprisingly fast and elegant way the opening receptions (vernissages) of exhibitions and events and i'm grateful to them for that. I profess an intense dislike for vernissages where people seemed to be more passionate about tepid wine and showing off their mere presence than about the artworks on show.... but that doesn't mean i'm not curious about vernissages. VTV also covers performances, artists talks, interviews artists, architects and designers.
Although he was super busy working on their VTV turns 1000 event, Heinrich Schmidt managed to find some time to answer my questions:
Vernissage TV is covering the cultural scene almost all over the world. Who forms the core of Vernissage TV? How much of the work do you cover yourself? Do you have collaborators all over the world? How does one collaborate with you?
Karolina, Geoff and I form the core of VernissageTV. Karolina is mainly in charge of the financial side of the project and communications, Geoff takes care of the website programming and I'm doing the filming, editing, etc. The three of us cover the most part of the work, but we also have collaborators in Berlin, Munich, and Paris. If someone is interested in collaborating, we send her or him information about the project and check whether we fit together. Then we make a test run with an opening we agree upon to cover and if that was successful, the collaborators work more independently.
Do you 'curate' the videos? For example would you consider bypassing a major exhibition of a world-renowed artist just because you do not like his or her work? Or do you give more space to young talents in the hope that the visibility you give them will boast their career?
What we select is based on intuition. We always say that chance is our best friend. Sometimes we are attracted by a big name, sometimes by an interesting exhibition concept, and sometimes we just run into an opening. If we cover a world-renowned artist, that doesn't mean that we like his or her work - and vice versa.
And a somewhat related question: One of Vernissage TV's main section is No Comment. Aren't you tempted to be polemical, critical, take a stand? Isn't it irresistible sometimes?
Oh yes! Sometimes it's really hard to resist taking a stand. We are not seldom polemic (or enthusiastic) when we drive home after a show. But one of the core concepts of VernissageTV is to stand back and let the audience build their own opinion. That's why people love VernissageTV and we won't deceive them.
What do you think is your place in the contemporary art press? Have you ever found that you get less attention and regard from PR offices because you are 'only' an online media? Do you see an evolution in the credit and respect given to online media?
Apart from two funny experiences we are happy with the regard we get from PR offices. Two years ago we wanted to cover an exhibition at the Cooper-Hewitt which was declined because they said that they had an exclusive deal with another internet tv station. And last year we weren't allowed to cover the Murakami show in Frankfurt, because they only wanted national media. But I love such experiences, because they tell a lot about the art industry. Rewarding material for my novel I intend to write when I'm 95 years old. But you are right, we get more attention now than when we started, but I assume this is partly due to the fact that more people know us now. I also saw that some museums actively encourage bloggers to cover their shows, so I think there is an evolution.
Can you name us 5 videos which, for some reason, have played an important part in the history of Vernissage TV? Could you tell us why?
The most important one is definitively the very first one, when we filmed the Zaha Hadid exhibition at the Swiss Architecture Museum in Basel. The experience was such a good one that we thought it would be a great idea to do this more often. Without this video, VernissageTV would never have happened. The second one, Christoph Büchel's show at the Kunsthalle Basel added to this because it was such fun to film this labyrinth he installed there - one had to climb a ladder, creep through holes. With this video, we got addicted. Equally important, because it was the next step, was the coverage of the art fair FIAC in Paris because it was the first location outside Basel. Jonathan Meese's exhibition at Deichtorhallen in Hamburg was one of the largest shows we covered until then. We filmed the exhibition as well as the play Kokain for which Meese did the stage design, and the after show party. That was great fun and everything went so well that it gave us a lot more confidence in our work. Video number 5 is our video number 1000. I'm not a fan of numbers, but when I look back, I can't help to be a little bit proud of it. I only wish I had a little more time to re-watch the videos. That's why we decided to do this non-stop online-screening to celebrate our 1000th video - increases the chance that I'm able to have a look at the videos again...
What is the typical process of a Vernissage TV video? Where do you start, how much preparation and editing is necessary, etc.
After we have decided to cover a show we think about the equipment we use: small or big camera, tripod or not, external mic or not - it depends on whether we shoot a video for our Interview or our No Comment series, on how much equipment we are able or willing to carry. When we stay at a location for several days, like in New York or Berlin, the planning of the schedule begins weeks ahead and is very time consuming - and sometimes the whole schedule gets messed up because we decide on site to cover other or additional events. As for the editing: This can take an hour or several days. When we film, we try to edit in our heads already. For openings, this sometimes works surprisingly well and then we don't have too much work with the editing. For larger exhibitions or performances, like Doug Aitken's Sonic Happening at 303 Gallery it's far more complicated because you have to bring across the atmosphere of an hour of performance to 8 minutes: where do you set the transitions of music and image. This is especially challenging if you have only one camera and not an additional B-roll. But if the result is good, then these are the most rewarding videos.
May i have a photo of your working space for publication? If the answer is yes, do you have any comment about your office (too cluttered? too small? feng-shui designed?)
Our office in Basel: just perfect. It's in an old house (built in 1386) on the bank of the river Rhine. It's pretty relaxing to watch the barges passing by slowly. We love it. We have built a second office in a small town near Basel, which we will use as studio and space for video screenings. It's totally different from the one in Basel city, made of fair-faced concrete and glass and designed by Austrian architects gernergernerplus.
Image on the homepage Harburg Art Channel: Jonathan Meese, Mama Johnny , Deichtorhallen Hamburg.