Interview with Antoni Muntadas

published: 
December, 1999

 

It would be foolish to state there are no developments in net.art. The developments are simply more difficult to follow, as they are squeezed between a relatively rapid expansion of the net.art field (in what some would call a commercial way) and the growth of 'offical' recognition of net.art by 'high art' institutions. At the same time these two things of course also are developments in net.art, or they for sure produce them. We just need to think of Peter Weibel's project 'the net.art museum'. I spoke to a multimedia art veteran, Antoni Muntadas, about art in new media, net.art in particular, and recognition of artists. Muntadas created an early webproject called the Fileroom in 1994.

A de-cafinated experience (of net.art)

 

 

JB: I understand that in your opinion the development of the net as a medium for artists can in some ways be compared to the way early video art developed, and that what happened in early photography can also teach us lessons regarding the development and perception of net.art. What do you mean when you say the way net.art is presented is "maximalistic"?

 

Muntadas: Firstly: I would never connect my work to any specific medium. I hate the idea of artists called video artists, called net.artists. I define myself as an artist using different media. I see these days that somebody like Bruce Nauman is presented as a videoartist, which I think is an incredible manipulation. I would never want to see myself in a position producing works in these situations of a relationship with one single medium. I know that people strategically take advantage of using one medium or one style. I am against style; I am closer to discourse.

 

In relationship with the Internet analogy I would say that what happened with video and photography is what we can now distinguish as the way new media appear in the arts. These three relatively recent media are interesting to analyse. They are not, like painting, originally an art medium. Photography in its origin was more like visual anthropology; it was used for representation instead of previous media. Artists are a minority in the history of photography.

 

Video the same thing: television existed and video was commercially used in different ways. Some people then started to use video as an art medium. That analogy can be found in the net. When the net appeared it was for the military, then it became academic and after a few years some artists started to see there was a space there they could use, connect to and activate.

 

I would like to refer to other artforms that are connected to this, like mail art, correspondence art. There were a lot of networks. I was participating in that period, in the seventies. You could see mail art being very strong and effective in Eastern Europe and south America, because there was the need to communicate information in places isolated by their political and geographical situation. They used the mail as a network. There are some analogies between the appearance of media to what people experience in terms of networks or in terms of communication. What I see in the net is a space and a medium for specific projects, but I am sceptical, like I was sceptical with video, that there will be certain utopian situations in the way 'things' are going to change. People start to have expectations about how the medium -could- change things socially and politically. This is why I mention maximalism. A realistic position is neither utopian nor catastrophic.

 

When video appeared in the artcommunity, people used it as a means of selfexpression, recording ephemeral events and also as an alternative to counter mass media, like in guerilla television. Some tried to provide an alternative to television. After years we now see alternative television is staying marginal. It is still the three big networks in the United States: ABC, CBS and NBC, plus CNN, which apeared later. I think cable and community television have been using a lot of the models and prototypes of alternative television, which were then taken and absorbed by mainstream. You can see that in MTV (from special effects, formats and construction) and in most of the broadcast channels it shows in the format of news reporting. A lot of reporting on television has been taken from formats that individuals and independent groups made in the seventies. The way of recording of John Alpert, from DCTV, from an independent group, was taken into mainstream by other interviewers.

 

With the Internet it is the same. At least, there are some analogies; things never repeat themselves in the exact same way. Certain developments, certain kinds of expectations, interesting situations come up, but then the mechanisms of the industry, the political systems and economy, with a strong dominance of economics over even politics, are if not destroying these expectations changing them, dissolving them, making them harmless. A de-cafinated experience of the expectations you had.

 

The net is from a certain period, the last ten years, where people see it as a new territory. How long it will be an open territory is a question. At the moment the situation is so that people are starting to find ways to use it and 'stretch' the medium. I think the imagination, the perspectives of artists that can project and invent things there is fine. Still a lot of work young people do in video is interesting as well though. A lot is repeating from others that came before, but it is always changing. Sometimes the historical references and the information related to a period are changed or lost.

 

The Internet being the main alternative for television for instance I think is questionable. When I talk about the ideas around the net being maximalistic, I mean that when you have seen the development of a new medium, you start to realise that a lot of these things are more expectations and hopes then reality. But of course one should keep working on it, keep doing it.

 

Of course the way that people are observing, or perceiving works on the net in every part of the world... it has to do with this mail art situation in a way, but also with how people are connected with computers and how they are networking. A lot of projects in the net become very popular in the net itself, and nobody knows of it outside the net. This is fine. I don't think everything needs to be recorded for history in the same way. Every medium has its own way. If you see video in relationship to this in the artsituation, in the seventies and eighties it has been totally underground, very repelled by the artsystem. Now, with the new generation of the nineties, it has been absorbed completely. They have become part of the gallery system and the market.

 

JB: I think the problem net.artists encountered most of all was that the quality of their work was (or sometimes is) simply denied. There also is still unclarity about what art on the net exactly is. There is a 'younger' generation of artists that are working mostly on the net, that are sometimes also connecting it to the outside in different ways, like in performance, or like in extending their internet work into other media, fax, print, dance, sound or video for instance. The Internet is the basic essence. This I would call net.specific art or net.art (for as long as we still need seperate names for art made in different media). The existence and quality of this art is questioned in regular art criticism. It seems the only way this kind of art criticism can overcome their distrust of art in computer networks, is when it is made by established artists, who often have earned an 'art status' with work in other media. Their names give the medium 'credibility', but to me the work of early net.artists is much more interesting. Do you think this is something that needs discussion?

 

Muntadas: Two things here: Firstly, everyone should have their own experience, although previous references should be taken into consideration. Secondly, I don't want to take the position that by age one could identify an artist for good or bad. Every project should have an interest, intention and meaning.

 

Let me tell you what happened with video. People that worked with kinetic art (Vasarelly), moving image, computer image, started working with video in the sixties. Older generations that worked in video were saying: "What are these guys doing? They are doing painting, and transferring kinetic art to video." That is not the way these people did perceive the medium and the use of the medium. The thing is that media do not have only one way to use them. This flexibility and pluralistic being of a medium is a good thing. Photography, television, video or the net could be pushed, and we could see outside the spectrum of the arts, how much it has been used there. I am for new use and representation of the specifities of a medium: to paint with photography, to film with video, etc.

 

JB: It can be pushed?

 

Muntadas: The limits could be pushed in the way that they could be pushed outside of the artworld, to get another kind of experience. Video is being used in documentary. Is documentary recognized as an artform? Video is being used as counter information. Is counter information being looked upon as an artform? For me it could be one. A Goddard film could be an art piece. Early pioneers on television, Erny Kovaks in the USA, Averty in France, were people that were exploring the medium in very singular ways. All depends on perception, intention and meaning.

 

Again I think it is a way of the energy of a generation to identify with a medium, growing up with a medium, creating some kind of agressive but also protective situation about the medium. I think this in a way is reductive, because I don't think it is protecting the medium to say that medium is only being used by a certain kind of people, by a generation with a particular vocabulary. I think this is a very very microscopical view of what the use of a medium is.

 

I am against ghettos. Ghettos have been produced in photography, they has been produced in video, and now they are produced in the internet. Ghetto's of people that are protecting a space and they think:" We have the true vocabulary of a medium." versus others that are using it wrongly. The openness of a medium is very important. I say that because all the discussion about a medium not being recognized: this is a question of time. Look at Documenta X. Documenta is one of the most established artshows in the world. They had ten websites. You can agree or disagree with their choices of websites, but it was pretty much a spectrum of work. I am sure that among the young people there were some that had mixed feelings about taking part or not, because at the moment you are part of an established show, you are not underground anymore. Then the people that are not chosen say: "That is a very established situation and the Internet should never be part of Documenta." Or the contrary, the people that are at Documenta say: "Now I have recognition, but I am not sure how it is absorbed." These movements of absorption or recuperation of work by the establishment have always been. Having these websites at Documenta is already a symptom that this medium is producing projects and is starting to be recognized. Is that good? I am not sure. I am not sure...

 

I am sure it is interesting to see for the rest of the artworld that they could start to give credibility to the fact that a lot of people have been exploring this medium. Maybe this is the first time they see the medium in another way. On the other hand however, it is bad. It is the first move to establish a history, and establish a catalogue, establish historification of a medium. Maybe ten people are in this exhibition and maybe two hundred other projects are still out there that are even more interesting. Maybe the curator did not do his job properly. Maybe they simply don't know about other work. Maybe it was last minute decisions. What I want to say is that in a way they reaffirm or confirm this situation that things are repeating. Not in the same way, but I see already strategies, a recuperation of the medium. That is why I take the position to not associate with any one medium.

 

JB: Still there are artists who choose, who feel best with one specific medium. If their work is not recognized simply because the choice of the medium they work with is not being recognized as a medium one can make art with, they have a problem.

 

Muntadas: For how long, three months? Six years?

 

JB: You say it is a question of time. Does that mean that art criticism should just hold back and wait, not criticize but show the artists' work? Create journalism instead of criticism?

 

Muntadas: No. A generation of artists needs to properly create a generation of people writing about it or analysing it or theorising about it and putting it in a proper way. The same generation that produces the work should produce their own people to write about it. They should, if not display, but in a way theorize and contextualize the work in relationships in which that work is produced. The people that are writing understand the medium; they know how to diffuse, to talk about, to criticize the work, because they probably know the medium. Critics of painting couldn't do an overview of an Internet project, because most of them don't understand the medium. I would say: any previous media historically appearing needed to produce their own theory, needed to produce their own writing, needed to use their own way of perceiving. I don't want to say this must be. I am not dogmatic. I go back to the ghetto-story, to be all the same group of people. It should be a kind of generous way of understanding and perceiving. To see: this is interesting and this is not interesting, not only beause they are part of a specific generation, or a specific group, or a specific country, or a specific point of view. For that to happen it sometimes needs time. Sometimes it needs time to have a distance. I can see people that were part of a group that after a while are able to take some distance and see things from a different perspective. I would say this is not because of the newness of a medium; it is because the work still needs to be thought about.

 

Things are going faster. The speed of photography, or the speed of video, or the speed of the Internet: it goes faster and faster. Take somebody like Robert Frank, an important artist. He is about seventy years old. This guy did the most important photography work in film and video as a photographer. When is he recognized? He spent fifty years of his life without recognition, besides maybe one early work. He is one of the major contributors to the artworld the last years. Now within three months everybody wants to be super recognized, super established. In a way, this is the worst thing. To be established is the worst thing for work. I always like it not to be very visible. You keep working, you have the possibility of producing new work, and you have the possibility of your work being presented more. It is not a question of making a lot of money, you don't want to have a lot of success, you don't want a lot of visibility, just enough, you should not loose your independence, because the moment these things happen, you are totally swallowed. You are hype and what happens after hype? Not being hype. Another situation. I think it is important to keep at a level of working at ways to develop the work, possibilities to do the work, be part of issues and discussions with your ideas and contribute to those discussions, but establishment and success: I don't think that helps at all.

 

JB: How important is the time and distance aspect in your work?

 

Muntadas: All my work takes a long time to develop. One project took ten years to develop, another seven, another three. The first Internet project (the File Room) started as a project idea in '92. The carpet project (the Cee Project) took my nine years.

 

Time for me is important. When I see urgency, immediacy, I am kind of sceptical. Immediacy could be good for certain things, but sometimes it needs distance to have a perspective. A more organic development. This organic development is never the same. It depends on the context you are working in. If you work in Brazil it is a different process of working then in Canada or in Holland. Cultural contexts cause different ways of perceiving time, a different sense of time. We analyse everything at the same sense of speed and the same sense of time: I think we are really destroying cultural identities this way. The project takes the time that it needs. You can always say: "You have one month to do a project", but maybe it requires more.

 

JB: Is maybe every artist at some point in his career or working life concerned with the art market? The system that he has to deal with, the social network he has to function in? Is that maybe also how we can see your "Between the Frames" project? Maybe in the eighties when the artmarket was so incredibly strong and focussed on money, commodity art arising, it became more urgent to explore this aspect in your work?

 

Muntadas: I think we are all participants in the market. Everybody. Even the people that are total outsiders. Whether I am an insider or an outsider depends on how a situation is perceived. It depends on how people analyse it, it depends on the kind of work. By the fact that we live and exist, we are part of the market. We live in a structure totally depending on economy. Even the most marginal person is part of the market by defection, by making the choice of being an outsider or not.

 

I don't think there is any artist that is not participating in the market. The market exists and is necesary, like we also need a museum or a gallery or a critic. It is a historical construction that exists because of these needs. The eighties, and maybe other periods as well, had a certain kind of constituency. These roles and that situation of the market became too much to endure. It had a lot of repercussion on how roles transformed, on power and money. I think there is a lot of continuity of this in the nineties, but there is a clear reaction of many people as well though, because the economy is changing too.

 

"Between the Frames", like others works I have done, has personal and public aspects and reasons to be made. In the case of "The Fileroom" the trigger is very clear: it is the result and reaction against a censorship case, a previous project titled TVE: Primer Intento. A project about Spanish television. They commissioned it, and I worked on the project for three years, but: they never broadcasted it. It was a work about the Spanish TV, about 40 years of Spanish recent history, a 'memory piece'. I had access to the archives of the Spanish TV and I also had access to film places related to the past and present of the TVE, at that moment the only official station. At that time I was already living in the US and I remembered Spanish television from when I was a kid. It was part of my past and my native countries' background; I was very frustrated they did not broadcast the work. It was made for a specific context and audience, the Spanish audience. So this work was one of the first we put in "The Fileroom", as a personal situation and as a public fact.

 

Censorship is different it is much more subtle now. It changed shape. It is less easy to point something out as censorship. Before they destroyed books or cut films, now they are using different strategies, like some years ago technical quality was a reason, a justification, to refuse something. They can also say for instance something has no commercial value. You are then left with the question: "Is this censorship?" People that apply censorship are more subtle because they are much more aware of the media and their implications.

 

Going back to "Between the Frames", it was an exploration of a specific period, the 80's, I was reacting to that moment, but also to my own work. Zooming in and zooming out. At a certain moment when you are exploring a large subject in the context you are working in, which in my case was the artworld. You can talk about a very very large media landscape, but why not zoom in to the artsystem itself. Anyway after working on this for ten years I don't want to talk about the artsystem for a while. Maybe in some years I will do a continuation of that project, interviewing the guards in the museum, as another kind of participants....