Interview with Alexei Shulgin

published: 
July, 1997

This is a short interview made with Alexei Shulgin made in Januari 1997, at the secret conference on net.art in London. We were both tired and distracted by the surroundings, sitting in a corridor of a pub, people passing, talking loud...

JB: What do you do in general?

AS: In general I do various actions; almost all of them are somehow related to what is known as art. Almost all last year I was involved specifically in the net, but I work outside the net as well. My background is more traditional artforms. I started with photography, then made installations, objects. I curated exhibitions in real space. Little by little I moved towards the net. Still I am considering I have to have some way out of it and that I must keep my contacts in the real world.

JB: You posted a kind of manifesto against professionalism on nettime, was that against professionalism in general or only for the artscene?

AS: Actually it was not against professionalism, I even don't know whether it was against anything. I wrote it in the form of a manifesto to be clearer about what I was going to say, though some statements look or seem very strong, they were not meant this way. It had to do with this form. What I wrote is an appeal to artists not to become too sofisticated in their skills, not to become masters, because since you become very devoted to what you are doing you turn into a slave of your medium and the picture of the world you have becomes very narrow.

It was a reflection of my mental and spiritual state at the time. In general I would never make strong statements and strong expressions because how can you be sure that you are right. You can never be right in what you're saying and what you're doing. Sometimes if you want to say something you have to temporarily forget about this dilemma.

JB: It seemed a bit of a paradox that you ask people not be skillful when they have to work with new media, with technology that needs quite some skills. What do you think of that?

AS: I can't agree with you because pc's or what people are working with today have very nice interfaces and the software we are using can be very simple. Of course many artists go into very complicated stuff like Shockwave or RealAudio. They go into software that really requires a lot of skills and knowledge, but my general idea is what we have with net.art is we have a sort of shifting paradigm in art from the idea of representation to the idea of communication. For communication you don't need a lot of skills. You can use very simple software, which is widely available. To create webpages you should just know the html language that is very simple. You don't have to know a lot, it’s not necessary.

JB: Lets just move on to net.art then. So on the one hand you have this simple technology that people can make beautiful artpieces with. On the other hand there is this sofisticated artworld that is in need, that is hungry for new talent, and which of course is also hungry to show that it knows what is new and what is the freshest. And it wants to get some net.artists into their galleries. What do you think will happen?

AS: You never know what is going to happen. But I think this year will be sort of crucial for what is called net.art, because now we see allready a lot of attention coming from traditional art institutions to net.artists. This year we will see a lot of exhibitions and projects realised in the traditional gallery and museum spaces. On the other hand what we have with the net and what we never had before, is that you can not only produce your work, but also distribute it without the third side, without somebody between you and the audience, because the net itself is a global network. I think we will have two trends in the development of net.art. One is that some big stars of net.art will be emerging, having expensive exhibitions in galleries, selling their works. On the other hand we will have a lot of, I would say, underground net.activity, which is at the same time not underground anymore because it can be distributed worldwide. I have no clear idea what we will come to in the end, but I think it will go in these directions.

JB: So something from the underground that in the old situation would most possibly disappear into oblivion after a while now will have global reach. What effects could that have?

AS: First thing I see, is that its now really interesting and makes sense to make some kind of independent and underground activity, because you in the end publish it on the net. Through the net I see a lot of cases of people finding somebody with similar views, similar ideas and creating international societies, international social groups according to their interests. It not just happens in the art scene, it’s with everything. The problem of inclusion or exclusion is not so important today, also because of the general decline of the traditional art market system. Of course artists want money, but besides money they want to bring the result of their work to people and now this is possible. I can say that when I started to do net.works, for me it was kind of an escape or way out of the traditional artsystem I was involved in for some years. I had really very bad experiences in it, not only as an artist but also as a representative of a national or international minority because I am living in Moscow and things are different there. Whatever I did as an artist was always contextualised as something specific Russian, coming from Russia. The artsystem is very strong and everything is very much fixed in it, so there are special niches for some minorities. I would have to move to the west and start some career again or I don't know what I would have had to do. To always be treated as a Russian artist was not interesting at all. The net appeared to be a temporary good solution. In what I am doing on the net nobody cares if the signal comes from Moscow or from whereever. I can put my files on an Amsterdam server or in NewYork. It doesn't matter.

JB: What kind of things do you do?

AS: I first started with a adaptation of my previous video and media works to the net, so net.versions of what I was doing in video before. This was also connected to my net.curatorial activity. I worked with some other Moscow artists and realised their projects on the net. Little by little I got involved in some international communication around the nettime list. I have become acquainted with other peope who share some of my ideas and who do some artwork that I personally like. What we have now is some group of net.artists that appreciate eachother personally and like eachothers works. We began to do things together.

JB: Yesterday you said you are very emotional. What kind of art do you like? Do you like ‘emotional’ art?

AS: No. I think here we have a difficulty of definition, because I think that, say, early conceptual art is very emotional or: Fassbinder’s films are very emotional. So what is emotional in art? You don't have to see some manifestations of strong emotions, direct, but I think all good art is emotional, because it is about energy. When you see a good artwork you always feel the energy that comes out of it and the energy of its creator. Maybe it’s a little bit a romantic idea about art, but I can't find another idea. Just a manifestation of creative energy.