"I don't believe in self-expression"

Interview with Alexei Shulgin  (alexei@easylife.org)

by Tilman Baumgärtl  (Tilman_Baumgaertel@CompuServe.Com)

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 Baumgärtl: 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?

Shulgin: 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.

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