Peter Weibel: «The Virtualization of Art is the end and beginning of art»

Interview with mediapatriarch about Moscow exhibition, Artivism and Tenth Muse

Peter Weibel
Peter Weibel / photo from personal archive

Peter Weibel — an iconic Austrian artist, director of the Center for Art and Media Karlsruhe, one of the most influential theoretician of modern art. He was born 1944 in Odessa, studied in Paris and Vienna. He is called «The pioneer of media art», and his experimental interactive installations films, video and computer art have received worldwide fame. The first performances, he began to organize in the late 1960s. One of the most cited street action he made with feminist artist and film director Valie Export in which she leads Weibel on a leash through Vienna like a dog.

A solo exhibition «peter_weibel: technē_revolution» will be held at the Moscow Museum of Modern Art from 11 September to 1 November. The exhibition will take the four floors of MMOMA in Ermolayevsky Lane — along with some of Peter Weibel’s iconic installations and videos it will feature documentation of his early performances and some new works. The project is curated by Joseph Backstein, Director of the Institute of Contemporary Art in Moscow.

Peter Weibel answered the questions for Orloff Russian Magazine.

Peter, what you think is a Tenth Muse of modern epoch?

Performance. Western Art was divided into space-based art like painting and sculpture and time-based art like music and poetry. But with the advent of technical media, music became sound art, that is objects in space, and images became moving (for example, cinema and video). Painting became action painting (Jackson Pollock) and show painting (Georges Mathieu) and finally action art (happening etc.) Space-based painting turned into time-based performance and theatrical body art. This performative turn even enriched culture. Sculptures like Robert Morris, Franz Erhard Walther and Joseph Beuys turned sculpture into actions, demonstrations, objects for use. The performance of the artist invited the public to participate in the action or to use the object. Performance had as consequence the participation of the real public. Therefore, this performative turn in art is responsible for transforming everything what was representation into reality. Instead of landscape painting we have landart, instead of portrait painting we have body art, instead of painted waterfalls — artists′ works with real water, instead of genre paintings we have object art, environments and installations. Performativity is the Tenth Muse of modern epoch.

What do you think, is the art in the modern world productive as a political action, such as in the 70s?

Art can be a mirror of time. When the individuum was invented in 17th century, some epochs later artists claimed their individual freedom and called it the freedom of art. This individuum, social atom, because not dividable like the atom, naturally was part of social systems. In the name of the autonomy art, which was invented as a fiction in 19th century at the very historical moment when art lost its commissioners (like aristocracy and church) and was surrendered to the mechanisms of the so called free market, the individuum as artist clashed with the institutions, the subject clashed with the systems. The poète maudit was invented as the hero of romantic modernism. In the 60s artists came back to this mythos of modern art, at a time, when the systems even in the West became too repressive. Many liberation movements, from youth rebellion to pop rebellion, changed the face of society. Today, this activism of art has spread to the masses. The artistic performances of the 60s and 70s have become the model of global activism, from Russia to Egypt, from China to Arabia. Therefore, I speak of Artivism as the new avant-garde in the 21st century.

Virtus as it was understood by the ancients had superior internals. The Virtualization of Art means its competent end or the beginning?

The alphabetic code was a medium to make present what was absent in space and time. Men could write about persons, things and events that happened or exist in other places and in other times. Writing is the medium of absence. Technology continues this labour of writing. By being a medium of absence, writing had already a virtual dimension. But with the technical carrier media (from magnetic storage to electronic storage, from magnetic tape to floppy disc) the virtual dimension became more apparent. When the image or the text is stored not in a fixed way like the letters on paper, when the letters are movable (remember movable type printing of Gutenberg), then you realize the variability of the stored information. When information is variable, you can change it, you can transform it. A virtual image or even a virtual visual environment is a context of variables which can be changed by the visitor. The visitor gives an input to the screen with the help of an interface, the images changes its content and there is always a different output by the participation of the public. After the variability of the storage and the virtuality of the information finally we have image systems which act like living organisms. This behavior of the image can be called viability. Storage, content and use of information are completely different in digital media from analog media. But digital media only continue and externalize the characteristics of analog media. Therefore, the Virtualization of Art is the end and beginning of art at the same time.

Peter Weibel. Fingerprint
Peter Weibel. Fingerprint, 1968 /

Once you have named Moscow of the 1920s birthplace of modernity, where the art of the era found its path. One hundred years later, how do you see the potential of Russian art?

Modern Art in Russia was a spiritual reaction against the materialist and mechanist West. It ended in abstraction (remember Malevich) and paradoxically in pure production utility (Rodchenko's chairs for worker's clubs). Strangely enough, the answer of the East, the revolution of the East, became the evolution of the West. The West followed the Russian path under opposite sign. The East has transformed the West. Now, the West tries to transform the East. The reaction of Russia could be an evolution under opposite signs.

You will have a large solo exhibition in September, the Moscow Museum of Modern Art. If you do not mind, please, tell us what is waiting for the visitors?

In the 60s I started to work with media and machines, with apparatus and algorithms. In the fields of literature, music, visual art. It was so out of sight that even my friends from experimental literature and action art refused to call me an artist. I could participate with them in many collective actions which became famous later, but they have not been interested in my own art practice. I was a kind of media rebel. My media colleagues from Poland to Yugoslavia had the same fate. Therefore, we said we don't care about art any more. We don't speak about art works. We just speak about works. In the 80s, there happened the regressive return to painting. Me and my friends have been marginalized and repressed into the cave. The triumph of the media happened in the 90s. Today, there is no big exhibition without media. But I do not only speak about media work, I see the influence of media everywhere: for example photography in the paintings of Gerhard Richter, in sculpture of Erwin Wurm etc. The effect of media art is ubiquitous. The show in Moscow demonstrates my evolution of media artist from literature to music, from photography to film, from video to computer. I am one of the very few who used all the media, I was always cutting edge. The visitor will be surprised and astonished by experiences, visions and ideas which he had never before.

Who needs more curators — artists, or visitors to the exhibitions?

Curators are like good book shops. When I go into a book shop, I trust on the expertise of the book dealer. He will offer me books about the existence of which I did not know. He will show me books with names and titles I did not know before. This is what I expect. I do not go into a book shop to order or buy books which I know — I go in a book shop to be surprised and informed. This should be the attitude of a visitor of an exhibition: To be surprised and to be informed, to learn something he did not know before, to experience something that only in this show he can experience. Therefore, the curator is there for the visitor.

Peter Weibel
Peter Weibel /

New gesture of the artist is always doomed to extreme forms of misunderstanding — the fear, curiosity, ignoring. Both the first and second, and the third can lead to its destruction. Does the artist need to be ready for «The Death of the Author» by Roland Barthes?

We have different attitudes about the author in the art system. When you read a novel, then it has its name of the author on title. Because you expect that the author has written the book. I am always surprised when I see a film announced as a film by, let's say Hitchcock, and then follows a list of hundreds of names who have helped Hitchcock to make the movie. It is clear, film is an industrial product and needs many hands. On the title of the novel by Dostoevsky, on the other hand follows no list of names because it is an individual product. Avant-garde film with all its limitations was also an individual product. But why should we call industrial films individual films and call the director and author? You see, there is a lot of misunderstanding, but this misunderstanding or even confusion is voluntarily: it helps to establish an undeserved reputation and shows the critic as slave of the industry. Unfortunately, this new confusion also has reached the art system. The virus of commercial industry has infected the art system.

For the artist, the main thing is freedom. You are not only an artist but also a teacher, transmitting experience and curator. It is for you the frame or canvas?

I make art, I write about art, I teach about art and I curate art. This is rare in the visual arts, because the division of labour is dominant in art, since art is dependant on the market system. In music my attitude is normal. Pierre Boulez makes music, writes about music, teaches music, is head of a music institution (IRCAM, Institute for Research and Coordination Acoustic / Music in Paris) and is curator of music, he takes care of the music by others by performing and conducting it. Corbusier made architecture, taught architecture, published a magazine about architecture, also books, and wrote about other architects. I am sure, that my renaissance-like artistic activity will be the dominant model of the future.

text: Artem Kalnin

© Orloff Russian Magazine

Peter Weibel
Peter Weibel /

Peter Weibel
Peter Weibel /

Peter Weibel
Peter Weibel / photo from personal archive