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<nettime> Interview with Alexei Shulgin
Tilman Baumgaertel on Thu, 6 Nov 1997 04:35:52 +0100 (MET)


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<nettime> Interview with Alexei Shulgin


Hi!

To welcome Alexei Shulgin for his stay at the Kuenstlerhaus Bethanien here
in Berlin, here's an interview I did with him at the "Beauty and the Beast"
meeting in Ljubliana in May.

Some of his more recent projects are not covered, but it still gives a
good introduction to his works and thinking.

Yours,
Tilman

URL's
Alexei Shulgins Homepage
http://www.desk.nl/~you/

Moscow WorldWideWeb Art Centre
http://sunsite.cs.msu.su/wwwart/

Form Art
http://www.c3.hu/hyper/form/

Desktop
http://www.easylife.org/desktop

%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%
>>Tilman Baumgaertel, Hornstr. 3, 10963 Berlin, Germany
Tel./Fax. 030-2170962, email: Tilman_Baumgaertel {AT} CompuServe.Com<<
%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%

------------------------------SCHNAPP!-----------------------------------

"I don't believe in self-expression"

Interview with Alexei Shulgin

?: I understand that you were doing art before you started
working on the internet. Please tell me what you did
before you discovered the net.

Alexei Shulgin: Before the net I was doing more
traditional art. I started with photography, and than it was
cinematic objects and video. But it always was about the
language of art, and the role of art and images in the
society. It was also about recycling images that we already
have, because I think that the world is overloaded with
images. We have more images than enough, and now
there's the question of selection, collection and
distribution. My first experiment with the internet was in
1994, when I set up an online-gallery of russian art-
photography. The reason to do this was very political,
because it was against the existing practice of art curating
and had to do with exclusion and inclusion. There was a
big show of russian photography in Germany ("Neue
Fotokunst aus Russland" (New Photoart from Russia),
Badischer Kunstverein, Karlsruhe; Kulturhaus Osterfeld,
Pforzheim; Karmeliterkloster, Frankfurt; Museum fuer
Volk und Wirtschaft, Duesseldorf). Some very interesting
projects and series of works were not included because of
the obvious ignorance of the curators

?: On the german or on the russian side?

Shulding: Both, because they were too busy with political
games. As a photographer I was included in this show, but
I thought there was something wrong with the whole
concept. So I proposed to do a kind of supplement to the
show on the internet.


?: Had you used the internet before?

Shulgin: No, I had just found out that there was such a
medium. I knew nothing about HTML or anything like
that. So I set it up, yet it didn't get included into the show
because of budget cuts. But it was one of the first art
photography exhibitions on the net ever.


?: There is this famous quote by Adorno, that if a
symphony gets broadcasted over the radio it's questionable
if it was still a symphony at all. Doesn't that also apply
when you use the internet as a means of distribution for
photography?

Shulgin: Of course, it's different. But photography in it's
traditional sense is first an image, and than it's an object.
The object part of photography is not that important as
with painting or sculpture. So if you put photography
online it is just a little bit worse than the reproduction of it
in a catalogue, because of lower resolution and the
smaller size of the pictures. Don't forget, that this was in
1994, and it was a time of experiments. I wouldn't do this
now anymore. I started to get more interested in this
medium, and in 1995 I learned HTML and got contact
with some server at the the university of Moscow. I
started a virtual institution called "Moscow
WorldWideWeb Art Center".


?: Is this a real institution or just an internet project?

Shulgin: It is not an institution at all. It's just a group of
people, nothing official. The aim of this organisation was
to create a space, where russian artists could show their
stuff. I put only works on the net that fit the internet
format. It wasn't about reproductions of works. I would
rather put more interactive and conceptual things online,
which works very well on the internet. I spent one year
setting it up and giving workshops. And little by little I
became part of the international net art community. I
attended a few conferences. The most important was
"Next Five Minutes" in Amsterdam in 1996, where I met
some people whom I knew before through the net, like
Heath Bunting and Jodi and Vuk Cosic.


?: Did that change the way you worked on the net?

Shulgin: I started to realize more and more the
possibilities and the nature of the net. I started to get
involved in a number of projects that were cooperations
between people who live in different countries and are
active on the net. They were not necessarily artists. These
activities were based on the idea of communication rather
than representation like in more traditional art forms. For
that the net works perfectly.

?: The net art scene is very international. In the group you
seem to belong to there is a number of West-Europeans.
Do you feel exluded because you are from the former
Eastern bloc?

Shulgin: No, of course not. I feel much more included
than before. When I was just an artist living in Moscow,
whatever I did has always been labeled as "eastern",
"russian", whatever. All my work was placed in this
context. That was really bad to me, because I never felt
that I did something specifically russian.


?: Do you think that the net created an internationalized
group of people who share  common ideas and interests,
even though they live in very different countries?

Shulgin: Sure. That's also why net art escapes any kind of
contextualization. What we have now is that there is no
critical context. Art always takes place in some physical
place, in a museum or whatever. Even when it's an
performance, it takes place in a space that is marked as an
art place. Even if it is not an art place, it is appropriated
by artists and therefore becomes an art place. With the
net, you don't have this physical space. Everything
happens on your computer screen, and it doesn't matter
where the signal comes from. That's why there is a lot
misunderstanding. People are getting lost, because they
don't know how to deal with the data they are getting. Is it
art, or isn't it? They want to know the context because
they don't believe their own eyes.


?: This seems to be a major paradox of net art: On the one
hand, theoretically net art is accessible to anybody who
has a computer with a modem. On the other hand, it
seems to be a very small circle of people, who are
involved with this. So there still seems to be some
mechanism of exclusion.


Shulgin: That's because net art doesn't pay. You don't get
money, you can't sell it. Even artists who are invited for
major exhibitions like the documenta don't get paid for it.
It's ridiculous. In the case of Jodi they take all their site,
and put it on the homepage of documenta. They grab all
the projects they have done for years. It's a few megabytes
of data. You don't need to sign contracts with
transportation companies to bring huge pieces. It just goes
via the net in a few minutes or hours. Artist who work on
the net don't earn much out of it. And everbody can join
in.

?: So why doesn't that happen?

Shulgin: Because there is no money behind. It's just pure
enthusiasm, which is good to me. Actually, this year it is
changing a little bit. 1997 is marked by the growing
interest from official art institutions like ars electronica or
documenta or many others. I'm producing a web project as
artist in residence in Budapest now. But still there is no
real money behind it.


?: So how do you support yourself, since one cannot really
make money out of net art. Are you programming?

Shulgin: I can always go back to photography, and I can
earn something if I get invited to shows. No, I don't want
to be into programming.


?: So how do you do your sites, if you don't program? Do
you have an assistent?

Shulgin: No, I do plain HTML myself, and some very
simple Java Scripts, that are stolen from other sites, which
everybody does.

?: So you think your "business model" as an artist is going
to live of stipends or invitiations to art institutions?

Shulgin: No, it don't like to be dependent on this. If I
would do this, I would be very easily manipulated. If I
would not get the next residency grant, what would I do? I
don't see a good modell at this point, but I don't worry,
because this very time is very interesting. It's a beginning.
It's the earliest stage. If you deal with technology-based
arts, the very first years are always the most exciting ones.
Look at photography: When they invented the 35-
Millimeter-camera there was this explosion of art
photography in the late twenties and early thirties. Artists
just did whatever they wanted with photography. They
didn't worry how it would fit into the art system. They
experimented with the medium, and they got really great
results. It was the same with video. Video art of today is
not interesting for me at all. Artists now use it as a new
tool for self-expression. But I don't believe in self-
expression.


?: Why?

Shulgin: There is too much information already. I don't
need more. But when this medium video appeared, it was
really interesting what artists did with it. Same with the
net: We are in the early stage of it now, and people are
just drawn to it by enthusiam.


?: What's really interesting about this comparison between
video art and net art is that video art moved in two
different directions: There is this very complacent and
hermetic subgenre of video art now, but video has also
become a very natural part of art pieces, performances
and enviroments.


Shulgin: Of course, the same thing is going to happen with
the net. It already is happing that artists are using the
internet in their work in galleries. With video there wasn't
any other way of distributing the works, except for the art
system. So far, for internet art that  wasn't necessary, but
this year I feel that we really need somebody to take care
of the distribution.

?: But the internet *is* distribution!

Shulgin: Yeah, but imagine if everybody is online, if
anybody makes webpages, it will become overwhelming.
Who would search for grains of gold in all this shit?

?: So there should be some internet censor, who decides
what stays online?

Shulgin: Of course. This kind of curating and selecting
can be done with very little money. I don't know what the
modell will be, though. But the future of the medium is
not interesting to me at all. I am enjoying the moment,
and trying to get as much out of this moment as possible.
If it becomes boring, I will probably give it up and do
something else.


?: I sense a lot of hostility against the traditional art world
among net artists. It seems to me, that a lot of net artists
started doing things on the net, because it was a way
around the normal art institutions.


Shulgin: Yes, for me it was a way to get around the way I
was contextualized. I also got very tired of this kind of big
shows, that bring nothing to artists themselves. They bring
some fame and success to curators, but not to the artists.
When I started there wasn't any context for net art at all,
which was really great. Of course, there was almost no
audience for it, too. Maybe we should create a situation
where the artists are also the audience, and also
collaborateurs. I don't know how this is going to work,
because everybody is so egoistic, but still there is some
kind of communication on the net, which is very strange.
People are not together, but they are together. It's not a
movement, it's not real friendship, it's something in
between.


?: Some of your projects have dealt with this method of
remote collaboration, for example "Refresh". This is kind
of a "chain of homepages" that appear on the viewer's
computer screen without him doing anything to it. Can
you say something about this project?

Shulgin: "Refresh" was very significant, because it was an
attempt to bring very different egos together and to do
some big thing with everybody working independently. In
this sense I am very happy about it.

?: Are there people involved in this project that you have
never met physically?

Shulgin: Many of them I don't know at all. I had never
heard about them before.


?: "Refresh" now doesn't work properly anymore. Does
that matter to you?

Shulgin: No, not really. The net itself doesn't work
properly, so how could it work? I actually thought that it
would stop working much earlier. I actually thought when
it had reached ten pages, it would stop. But it kept
growing, and at one point it really worked with thirty
pages.

?:  Some artists claim that the interactivity of net art
makes it different from other art forms.What do you think
are particular properties of net art?


Shulgin: I don't believe in interactivity, because I think
interactivity is a very simple and obvious way to
manipulate people. Because what happens with so-called
interactive art is that if an artists proposes an interactive
piece of art, they always declare: "Oh, it's very
democratic! Participate! Create your own world! Click
this button, and you are as much the author of the piece as
I am." But it is never true. There is always the author with
his name and his career behind it, and he just seduces
people to click buttons in his own name. With my piece
"form art", I encourage people to add to it. But I am
honest. I'm not saying: Send it in, and I will sign it. I will
organize a competition with a money prize, like 1000
Dollar. I think that will stimulate people to contribute. I
really want to make this an equal exchange. They work
for me, and I give them money. I think, it is much more
fair than what many of these so-called interactive artists
do.

?: Net art seems to be very self-referential to me. Why?


Shulgin: Because it exists only on the net. If you do it as a
part of a gallery installation it is different. In fact I did this
with the piece I just described. I printed some of it out
with a laser printer, and put it in nice frames on the wall.
It works...

?: But only net people get it...

Shulgin: No, in fact I looked for the reaction of the
audience at the show in Budapest, and they knew nothing
about the internet, but still they can read it very easily. It
is like very primitive art.


?: For the project "Internet Gold Medal" you selected
peculiar web sites, and declare them to be art works. You
awarded them prizes in very dubious cathegories, for
example for the "correct usage of the color pink". Is this
piece a comment about the blurring of the differences
between high and low art on the internet, about the fact
that - since everybody can put stuff on the net - respected
"high" art from the Louvre has the same status as some
amateur's paint box graphics?

Shulgin: I am acting as sort of an curator, who browses
the web to look for unrecognized talents, because many
people are so shy. They put things on the web and they
have never been in the art system, but they do interesting
things. The stuff I am selecting is like a parody of the
things that you can see in a gallery or a museum.


?: There is some cynical humor in selecting "found art"
from the web, and then combining it with "found art
criticism", as you do on your page...


Shulgin: Sure, but I think there is a lot of cynicism in the
art system in general. It's even more cynical and
hypocritical, because in the art system it is about money
and power.


?: Do you think that net art can be co-opted by the art
institutions again?

Shulgin: No, this will not happen. They are trying to do it,
but they always fail, because the net is too complicated,
and it never works properly. For example, this "Refresh"
project couldn't be included in a few exhibitions. It's
interesting, but the nature of the net is such, that it doesn't
work. So they cannot show it. There are a lot of shows
that are trying ot show net art right now, but even if it is
online, it's always fake. You have to put your files on their
server for easy access and fast connection. But if I knew
that the connection is fast I would do something
completely different, with big images and a lot graphics!
It's a big contradiction.

Interview: Tilman Baumgaertel

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