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Steve Dietz listening to Mobile Scout at the Database Imaginary exhibition, Walter Phillips Gallery, Banff, Canada Steve Dietz listening to Mobile Scout at the Database Imaginary exhibition, Walter Phillips Gallery, Banff, Canada
THE VISUAL ARTS BOARD OF THE AUSTRALIA COUNCIL INVITED STEVE DIETZ, A SEMINAL FIGURE IN AMERICAN CURATION OF NEW MEDIA ARTS AND CURRENTLY DIRECTOR OF THE ZERO ONE BIENNIAL FESTIVAL IN SAN JOSE, CALIFORNIA, TO COME TO AUSTRALIA TO MEET ARTISTS AS PART OF ITS INTERNATIONAL MEDIA ARTS STRATEGY. TAKING ADVANTAGE OF THE VISIT, REALTIME, D/LUX/MEDIA ARTS AND PERFORMANCE SPACE COLLABORATED WITH THE VISUAL ARTS BOARD TO HOLD AN OPEN DISCUSSION BETWEEN DIETZ, SYDNEY ARTISTS AND CURATORS AT CARRIAGEWORKS. THE CONVERSATION FOCUSED PRINCIPALLY, EVEN RELENTLESSLY, ON THE STATUS OF TECHNOLOGY IN MEDIA ARTS, NOT LEAST ON THE WORD THAT WON’T GO AWAY—NEW. A TRANSCRIPT OF THE MEETING, INCLUDING DISCUSSION OF THE RUNME.ORG SOFTWARE ART SITE AND THE GUGGENHEIM VARIABLE MEDIA INITIATIVE, CAN BE READ AT WWW.REALTIMEARTS.NET/FEATURES. HERE ARE SOME EDITED EXCERPTS.

Anna Waldman, Director, Visual Arts Board, introduced Dietz to the gathering, detailing his extensive media arts career since the 1990s, including 1996-2003 as curator of new media at the Walker Arts Centre in Minneapolis in the US, where he founded the new media initiative Beyond Line Art Gallery 9 and the Digital Arts study collection. Dietz has written and edited extensively and organised and curated many new media exhibitions including some of the first online exhibitions. He was director of ISEA 2006, Symposium Zero One, San Jose and is artistic director of the biennale Zero One, Global Festival of Art on the Edge in San Jose, 2008. Waldman was pleased, she said, that Dietz had “positioned Zero One as an event where artists are making art”, rather than making work about technology, and reported that he had “described his curatorial role as being polymorphously inquisitive”—as the full transcript of the meeting attests.

Keith Gallasch In one of your essays, you quoted Tom Stoppard, from his play Arcadia, saying, “It is the best of all possible times to be alive when everything we thought we knew is wrong.” Has your own career been like the twists and turns of media and media arts developments?

Steve Dietz I did go to art school and very smartly knew that I shouldn’t try and be an artist after that. But I was always interested in the combination of art and text, you know, sort of multiple things at once, and I think probably for many people around the circle here, the so called ‘new media’ was a place where you didn’t quite fit in as an architect or an engineer or a programmer or painter, and somehow this sort of combination of things was an amazing opportunity. And that was what Tom Stoppard [was referring to], that we didn’t know exactly what was going to happen but there was a kind of excitement and enthusiasm and it wasn’t about success in traditional terms, it was about exploration and energy and for me it was around text and images and that photography is both an artform and a system of communication, and digital media was sort of that on steroids.

What actually grabbed me was the CD-Rom. I saw it and I thought this is what I want to do, and I went back and sort of founded the New Media Department at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. But I think net art was interesting because it was, kind of oddly, a substantiation of a virtual world. It’s a kind of platform that one could talk about that historically, I think, didn’t exist quite in the same way until the advent of the internet and especially the world wide web. So that’s where a lot of my early curatorial energy was focused because for me one of the roles of the curator is to be a follower not a leader. There were lots of artists, I think, who were doing things on the net that were interesting to me and I wanted to make them interesting to both my colleagues and the general public.

KG Later on you wrote an important paper called “Just Art: Contemporary Art after the Art formerly known as New Media.” I was wondering, how did you arrive at the ‘Just Art’ position having been so heavily involved in the promotion of new media art? Was this a rhetorical point? In what way was it strategic, because in the same essay, although you say it’s “formerly known as new media art”, you defend artists against the charge of technophilia. You say, in fact, that new media art would save contemporary art because it would never be curated in the same way, and you say at the end, new media art won. New media art is dead, long live new media art. Are you having it both ways?

SD Yes, exactly. For a time I was very interested in championing and understanding the sort of differences and the new possibilities and capabilities and especially network and computational based artwork. But I think at a certain point there started to be a kind of ghetto happening, a kind of division, of conversations that weren’t happening between contemporary artists and so-called new media artists. And one of the things I write is that every single artist and curator I talk to says it’s not about the technology, it’s about the art.

My argument is, and not everyone agrees with this, that the best way to understand contemporary art is though the lens of new media art. It’s ephemeral, it’s performative, it’s real time, it’s all these things that everyone is dealing with and new media artists in particular have been dealing with them for a long time. So it’s a bit of a stretch—in the real world, in the pragmatic world—to say that new media art is “now.” But I do think that a lot of the issues that we have been dealing with for however many years are ones that are also front and centre in the contemporary art world and so, we need to have that conversation.

KG And so in your own festival, Zero One, in San Jose, what kind of art do you include if you want to realise more expansive vision?

SD Well, I think that the goal of the festival is to be about contemporary art that intersects with technology but is not medium specific. So it has nothing to do with whether it’s a computer or projector or a network. It could be a painting, it could be a sculpture, it could be, you know, some version of nature. And so in that sense it’s a very open field. But I do feel like a whole range of artists are looking at how technology has impacted on the universe for better and worse over the past 40 years and to separate those artificially into media arts and contemporary art is no longer a very interesting proposition. So when I go to the Sao Paulo Biennale and see fantastic work and really interesting ideas and there are no artists who actually use technology in a compelling way, it’s depressing...Many new media artists are very cogniscent of their relationship to the ideas of the contemporary art world. It’s the institutions and curators that I think are keeping or creating the separation, for some odd reason.

Lizzie Muller You were saying you’ve spoken to lots of new media artists who say their work is not about the technology, it’s about the art. But I wonder if that’s one of the distinctions that’s becoming a bit of a problem because if technology is someone’s medium, it might be fair to say that their art is very much about the technology...Another possibility is that the division between art and technology has held for such a long time that if, as new media people, we continue to say it’s not about the technology, we are kind of refusing to allow our medium to be brought into contemporary art spaces, whereas if we started to say, actually it’s very much about the technology and we work with technology, as a material, that might start to create some of those conversations between contemporary and technological art.

SD ...[T]echnology is changing how society works and this is my sort of core argument. [T]he computerisation of society, the combination of computation and networks has changed the world. And the world includes art. But my experience, and frankly my own interest, is not that artists formerly known as new media artists are interested in their art being understood as being about technology.

Denis Beaubois It’s very interesting for me because I don’t think it’s an either/or argument, I don’t think it’s polarised like that. I think part of the debate about new media, in my understanding is, that it is a fluid thing, a developing field, something that is active, and shouldn’t be pinned down by a medium.

LM Is it not possible to say that you couldn’t make an artwork now that wouldn’t be dealing with the impact of technology on experience, on one’s life? But that, on the other hand, some artists are really confronting that impact in an explicit way.

SD That is very well put in terms of how I would like to think about Zero One, because one shorthand way of saying it is that it’s not medium specific. And I think the other thing is that it is a complicated argument and I’m not trying to say that there is contemporary art sitting up here, and we’re all trying to be there. We have to actively support a heterogenous environment, the idea of experimentation and the support of new practices, and you know, those are really critical issues that can’t be ignored, or shouldn’t be shoved away. At the same time, I also think we have a certain responsibility, whether we’re curators or critics or artists, of not limiting ourselves to our most comfortable circle, so to speak.

David Cranswick The thing I’m thinking most about at the moment is the technology, which is the substance of what the artists are working with...People now have fluency with navigating and understanding networks and systems—everyone has been drilled in the revolution ...but again, artists have been working for decades now, have been doing great stuff with this.

SD Exactly my argument—I would say everyone except the institutions and the curators, right? The argument is not with the artists, the artists are not the problem...On the face of it, there is no adequate generalised appreciation of the amazing work that artists formerly known as new media artists are doing. And that’s, you know, bordering on criminal.

DC We’ve talked with you about ecologies and GPS and locative media. In recent months more and more people, and organisations like the City of Sydney, have alerted themselves to the fact that there are new channels, and they’re interested in how people traverse the city and how we might communicate with people, say within an arts festival or a biennale or so on. Thinking about five years from now, I’m not asking you to name the technologies [that will dominate], but is it GPS or some super network? Where are the movements do you think?

SD I was talking to someone here earlier about Second Life as an instantiation of a larger issue around virtuality and networks. And at one level, I couldn’t care less about Second Life per se. It’s a particular thing of the moment. So I do think that networks and computation are critical and what’s happened is that there’s this convergence...of mobility, the power of computing and the global network always being available. And that creates new possibilities, and I think that the larger issue there is how do we think about a universe that’s always online everywhere, all the time. And, yes, I absolutely think that that’s a direction that’s happening, whether it’s the iPhone or the Palm Pilot or GPS or a new set of satellites that the Chinese will put up into orbit—I don’t know, but I think that will change things. But the interpenetration of the network of computation into the physical world is only going to get more and more dense, and artists are going to do more and more interesting things with that.

See Features: RealTime/Performance Space Forums for full transcript.


Meeting Steve Dietz, presented by RealTime, Performance Space, d/Lux/MediaArts and the Visual Arts Board of the Australia Council for the Arts at Performance Space, Sydney, Australia, Aug 21, hosted by Keith Gallasch, Managing Editor of RealTime and David Cranswick, Director d/Lux/MediaArts.

Further information about Steve Dietz can be found at www.yproductions.com

Steve Dietz visited Australia as a guest of the Visual Arts Board of the Australia Council for the Arts as part of its International Media Arts Strategy.

RealTime issue #82 Dec-Jan 2007 pg. 27

© Keith Gallasch; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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