Josephine Bosma on Tue, 18 Jan 2000 18:03:44 +0100 (CET)

[Date Prev] [Date Next] [Thread Prev] [Thread Next] [Date Index] [Thread Index]

<nettime> interview with Steve Dietz

Steve Dietz is director of new media initiatives at the Walker Art
Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota. 'The Walker', as it is often called
in short, appearantly is unique for its depth of commitment to
multidisciplinary (not interdisciplinary) programming: visual arts,
film/video, performing arts (largest museum-based program in U.S.)
and new media. It bought and 'hosts' ada'web. It is one of the 10
most visited art centers/museums in U.S, and among the activities this
year are Olia Lialina and Vuk Cosic doing presentations this spring,
plus commissioning a new work by Alexei Shulgin and Natalie Bookchin.


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

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
In his book on virtual communities, Howard Rheingold refers to a not
uncommon "conversion experience" of early innovators of interactive
media (1). 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 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, 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 is your personal favorit? How do you
think this specific kind of 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 maybe say something about the aspect of time in the
reception of 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

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 (2) fascinating. Just one example. In one sense this work
from 1997 is "classic," already part of the power of the line (3),
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,
accessability' were on my mind when trying to formulate this question.
This limited memory span is a problem, but I think also the fact that
eventhough a lot of 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 appearant 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 is more attractive to me to explore, a bad habit.
What do you mean with siren song? The attraction or the death of

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
Victoria Vesna has talked about a wonderful project-connundrum, 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 floorplan, 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 (4), 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 archive yourself? And then a
philosophical question: what do you think would be reasons to save
certain net.artworks?

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

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

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
documenation 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 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" (5)

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 artworld, and whether the 'banal' emphasis on art as stock object
is a rather recent one which is only one part of the whole art

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.

(4) (


#  distributed via <nettime>: no commercial use without permission
#  <nettime> is a moderated mailing list for net criticism,
#  collaborative text filtering and cultural politics of the nets
#  more info: and "info nettime-l" in the msg body
#  archive: contact: