Interview with Steve Dietz

published: 
July, 2000

At the time of this interview Steve Dietz was director of new media initiatives at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Since then Dietz has curated several exhibitions, lectured around the world, and he is currenty artistic director of ZeroOne, an art festival in San Jose California. 'The Walker', as the Walker Art Center is often called in short, was unique for its depth of commitment to multidisciplinary (not interdisciplinary) programming for a large part thanks to Dietz' creative adaptation of his job title of head of new media.

JB: Have you focused on art in networks from the beginning? If not, can you tell me when and why you decided to explore net.art?

 

Steve Dietz: I came to the Walker in 1996 to found a "new media initiatives" department. From the very beginning, the Net as a medium for creative expression was central to what I wanted to do and to explore, along with engaging audiences and providing access to "information." In his book on virtual communities, Howard Rheingold refers to a not uncommon "conversion experience" of early innovators of interactive media. In my experience, lots of people drawn to networked, interactive media don't quite "fit" where they started out, whether photography or painting or the library or whatever and do feel a compelling fit with this hybrid, fluid medium, whatever we call it. On a personal level, reading to my young son was a very interactive, profoundly communicative experience, and it remains an ideal of what interactive, networked media can be. On a professional level, one aspect of the Walker's mission is to be a catalyst for artistic expression. The two mesh.

 

JB: Would you say you have to deal with specific difficulties in getting your work accepted, because you work in the United States (compared to curators and critics of net.art in Europe)?

 

SD: It has been more of a struggle to have net art accepted as a critical arena of activity for the museum than networked information resources or education-oriented inter-activities. The examples of artist-oriented programs in Europe as well as virtual organizations in the US such as artnetweb, The Thing, and ada'web have all been inspirational and instructive. I suspect, however, we can all be competitive in terms of the difficulties we feel we face regardless of where we are based.

 

JB: I have no wish to start any competition there, I am merely asking about the differences between the States and Europe when it comes to the reception and perception of net.art, because many people keep emphasizing there is this difference. I am curious what they mean. Are you saying it is a minor difference, or there is not really any difference, or the differences are unimportant?

 

SD: I would say that there is a much more active and stimulating network for net art in Europe. Certainly, many artists feel both greater support and greater appreciation for what they do in Europe --and perhaps Australia. Whether this is a timing or a structural issue is not yet clear.

 

JB: What kind or style of net.art is your personal favorite? How do you think this specific kind of net.art is best supported, or how could it be explored more and deeper?

 

SD: At the moment, I am greedily catholic in my interests. I guess I tend to end up less involved in work that seems too easily an extension of other media. In terms of support, I would say what I am working with most actively right now are commissioning and context, both of which, I think, are valuable, although contextualization can be tricky. "More and deeper" seem somewhat self-explanatory. They require commitment.

 

JB: Could you after three years of being involved in creating a context for net.art maybe say something about the aspect of time in the reception of net.art? Commitment does not just mean dedication, but also long term investment, right?

 

SD: A deep commitment to contemporary art is important and can only be manifested over time. Regarding net art, you're right; what does long term mean in a real-time world? I think almost more important is a rigorous openness to and support of experimentation--as opposed to rigor mortis of aesthetic categories.

 

JB: In relation to this I wonder whether the influence of the Internet on our perception of time (and therefore the world) creates a faster but ultimately less powerful, less dominant way in how art enters 'art history'.

 

SD: While acknowledging all the issues around historicizing contemporary work, if I have one generic "beef" about the net art world in general, it is a kind of obsession with what's new, today, this minute, right now. It's not _all_ about newness. While it may be "old" as a strategy, for instance, I still find Alexei Shulgin's Form Art fascinating. Just one example. In one sense this work from 1997 is "classic," already part of the power of the line, but in another sense, we still haven't digested it. Maybe this is exactly what you mean?

 

JB: Err, I am not sure myself. Both the aspect of 'time, memory and present' and the aspect of 'space, 'architecture', visibility, and accessibility’ were on my mind when trying to formulate this question. This limited memory span is a problem, but I think also the fact that even though a lot of net.art is text and image based, the medium internet because of its narrow view or landscape (the path we click) and its speed of communication exchanges (even if it's only relative) really is much more fleeting then even we assumed until now. What do you think?

 

SD: Speed is a popular perception of contemporary life, and as a prime "culprit," the Internet has replaced the fax machine, which replaced the telephone which replaced the telegraph, which ... But does this mean that our ideas, our art, our connectedness are more fleeting? I think it is Kittler, among others, who has pointed out that digital media displace the temporal sequence of events into spatial arrangement of 1s and 0s--which are then retranslated on demand. In other words, I would argue that what is most significant or perhaps fruitful is the dialectic between transmission (speed) and memory (storage), not either one itself. Nevertheless, the thrill of speed and the siren song of a universal Library of Babel are hard to ignore.

 

JB: So, speed might not be the right word for the experience of a relatively sudden abundance of choice, communication and platforms. Maybe the apparent real time existence or evolution of these things gives just an illusion of speed. You did not go into the space aspect though. To me this very simple fact that one cannot see anything of the network beyond the lines one follows while clicking away is an important factor. It could become even more important when certain commercial blockbuster sites from for instance large existing media networks start dominating the traffic routes. But already from the beginning this aspect of obscurity, of darkness beyond the path of links, has created a splintered online culture, when one compares it to how offline culture has developed. I agree that I do not give memory, or storage, or databases, or archives, the attention they need. You are right to correct me there. The flow and the real time presence are more attractive to me to explore, a bad habit. What do you mean with siren song? The attraction or the death of memory?

 

SD: I don't think it's a bad habit. Speed is seductive. And so is not the death of memory but the idea of an infallible,whatever-you-want-to-know-just-in-time-knowledge-delivery-system. Victoria Vesna has talked about a wonderful project-conundrum, Data Mining Bodies, which is about a community of people that have no time (to be a community). Is there a way to balance real-time with time-shifting, both of which are augmented by technology?

 

For me, this "narrow path," as you describe it is one of the really fascinating things about the network. Even if you never visit a certain room in a building, it's still there in the floor plans, but in a very real sense, the network is constructed through one's navigation. One is continually building the floor plan, so to speak. I think Maurice Benayoun's Is God Flat and Is the Devil Curved are wonderful examples of this, and it is also why I am interested in work like C5's, which is looking at ways of mapping the Internet without assuming we know what a map is or would look like. Whether online culture is more or less splintered than offline culture seems debatable. This may not make sense outside the U.S., but there is a joke that goes "All of _my_ friends voted for McGovern" (who was defeated for president in a landslide). Does the narrowcasting of the Internet create splintering or does its broad reach allow for individuals to create company? As for the dominance of commercial interests, etoy is only the most recent example. It is important to maintain an infrastructure that is many-to-many, that protects privacy, that promotes the Internet as a commons, but it might also turn out that a sizeable number of people still prefer a TV-model of interactivity--or a Gameboy level of content. What to do?

 

JB: I heard you are currently thinking and speaking about archiving. Are you working on a net.art archive yourself? And then a philosophical question: what do you think would be reasons to save certain works of net.art?

 

SD: I started a "Digital Arts Study Collection" at the Walker, initially to host ada'web. In a way, it is a two-edged activity. It is both a face-value recognition of the significance of net art and a museological device so that, in a sense, the Walker has the opportunity to collectively think about net art. I also have what I consider a more personal project, "memory_archive_database" which is an ongoing effort to think about some of these issues. The latest version is just published in Cadre's "Switch".

 

JB: What do you mean with the Walker thinking collectively about something?

 

SD: I don't think this is a Walker-specific issue. What I mean is that individuals animate a program, but that exposing that program to the discussion of multiple points of view can both strengthen the program and, in the best situations, change what had heretofore been the consensual norm.

 

I have said and would still argue that for society _not_ to be concerned with preserving cultural activity as significant as net art is akin to burning books. Passive ignorance becomes active repression. At the same time, some artists may not want their work "archived" and I certainly would not argue that I understand the best way to go about it right now. But I think it is important to think about, and one of the best ways to "think" about something can be to experiment.

 

Collecting, of course, is a whole different matter than archiving --although there are interesting and confusing parallels, since an archive of digital originals may be differ only in intentionality from a collection.

 

JB: Would you call ada web a collection or an archive then? How does ada'web function within the Walker Art Center?

 

SD: Good question! And not only is it a collection or an archive, but what is the relation of the part to the whole? For me, ada'web as a whole is a work of art--although it may also ultimately call into question whether that's the most interesting designation. So, I don't consider ada'web itself a collection of disparate projects, even though you can certainly distinguish between Vivian Selbo's Vertical Blanking Interval and Group Z's I Confess. In this sense, ada'web-at-the-Walker is not an archive. It is not documentation of some other original. It is an original, an object, to use the traditional museological terminology, although it doesn't completely fit. At the same time, ada'web as a living, growing organism has stopped growing. Benjamin and co. are no longer curating and producing new projects; we're not actively adding links to new works, etc. But I also don't think it's "dead." It still has life, although this is more a testament to how it's put together than anything we've done, beyond continuing to host it and not locking it up in the vaults.

 

The irony, at least in the States, is that there is increasing discussion of archiving/collecting net art/digital media, but still not significant support for its creation and production, so I think it is natural that artists would look at these efforts with some skepticism if not mistrust.

 

My interest in the archive is certainly an issue of preservation, but it is also one of transformation, both in terms of transforming the static archive into an active platform for support and in the possibility of it stretching the notion of the museum itself.

 

JB: In which direction?

 

SD: As both an event-platform (speed, transmission, production), and a kind of cabinet of curiosities (museum, archive, library), where acculturated distinctions between original and ‘about-original’; unique object and copyable object; delimited object/event and un-delimited object/event. Ownership and accessibility become less paramount.

 

JB: would that still be a museum though?

 

SD: Sure. I don't know. No. Why not? What's at stake?

 

JB: I am reading and thinking a lot about the shift from the museum into the media of the definition and reception of what is 'Art'. Does it change the function of art, or does it create less 'monumental' art? Can we trace an exact intrinsic value of art? The function of the museum has completely changed throughout the last century. The question (in general) is whether the important function of art as reference point for our culture will get somehow lost in this splintered focus art can only get when it has no clear boundaries anymore. My questions are old, but more prominent with the emergence of net.art I think. What is a bit problematic to me is that I do not trust the politics I sense behind a lot of writings concerning this issue.

 

SD: I would only add two comments. I agree that the function of the museum "has completely changed throughout the last century," which is why I don't see the changes I suggested as invalidating the idea of the museum.

 

At the same time, the museum and Art are not the same thing. You seem to be suggesting that one important function of the museum is as a kind of focus/filter for (net) art rather than just saying to someone "look at the Internet." I agree that this is, when done well, a valuable role, although I think there are deep pitfalls when that "focus" becomes confused and conflated with what Art is. I'm sure this is unbearably naive, but I do believe that "Art" is closer to what artists do than to what museums pay attention to (exhibit, collect)--which is _not_ to say that museums should not exhibit and collect and espouse what "they" think art is.

 

BTW, I have written at greater length about my sense of how digital culture intersects and affects the traditional role of the museum in a project for the Museo de Monterrey called "Cybermuseology".

 

JB: Would you say that art has always been supported for arts' sake instead of the general view that the art market is one of objects exchanged for money? I am just wondering whether this whole discussion of how to reward net.artists is not one that is already long fought in the art world, and whether the 'banal' emphasis on art as stock object is a rather recent one which is only one part of the whole art situation.

 

SD: Support of artists is important. Certainly, if the culture industry in the United States supported contemporary art in general in the manner that it currently supports net art, it would be an obvious sham. That said, much of contemporary art for quite a while has raised issues for the prevailing paradigms of support/collecting, and they've generally, however imperfectly, been solved. So for me, the important issues aren't around whether it's necessary to create the networked equivalent of editioning--pay-per-view?--but whether there is a level of engagement commeasurate with the level of activity. Right now there is not.