Interview with Peter Weibel: Centre for Art and Media Karlsruhe “will be the Louvre of media art”

Peter Weibel, head of ZKM Karlsruhe, on the Moscow Biennale and subverting military technology to create virtual sculpture


Polymath Peter Weibel, has led the Centre for Art and Media (ZKM, Zentrum für Kunst und Medientechnologie) in Karlsruhe since 1999. Called the “electronic Bauhaus”, at ZKM he has curated ambitious exhibitions such as “Iconoclash: Beyond the Wars of Images in Science, Religion and Art” (2002) with Bruno Latour, and “Lichtkunst aus Kunstlicht” (2006) on the history of light art. He is currently curating the fourth Moscow Biennale, due to open in September. An artist and academic as well as director, his interests range from art to medicine, literature, film and mathematics. Weibel’s artistic career began in the late 1960s with provocative performances, such as Aus der Mappe der Hundigkeit (From the Portfolio of Doggishness), 1968, with Valie Export, during which Export led Weibel on all fours, on a leash, along a Vienna street.

The Art Newspaper: What ideas are you keen to explore in the Moscow Biennale and where will it take place?

Peter Weibel: One of the exhibition spaces will be the Garage [Cultural Centre], designed by Konstantin Melnikov—a building without load-bearing pillars, a miracle of weightlessness, a cathedral for buses. We will also be exhibiting at two or three gigantic spaces in department stores and former factories, and there will be around 100 small events in various institutions.

The theme is “Rewriting the World: Art and Agency”. Under the pressure of globalisation the world and its values are being rewritten at incredible speed and I want to investigate how art is being rewritten at the same time. Moscow is the perfect place for this because it’s here in essence that radical modernism began—in 1915, with the rejection of the object in suprematism and the beginning of abstraction.

Now, a century later, there is increasing evidence to indicate that it’s time to move on from this modernism once again. Abstraction is being replaced by “agency”. Today’s art is concerned with reclaiming the world and its objects. Historical painting is suddenly right up there again. The hierarchies within the arts have changed, and the canonical triad of artist-work-viewer is disrupted by technology. Today the viewer can influence the art work [through] interactivity, although I prefer the word “performativity”. The viewer has become a performer.

Which artists have you invited to take part in Moscow?

PW: I cannot name them all at this moment but they will include Shilpa Gupta, Jon Kessler and Jeffrey Shaw. Around 100 artists will be on show and some 15% of them must come from Russia.

Who is financing the biennale?

PW: Primarily the Russian ministry of culture. The exhibition spaces are free of charge, and we have a budget of around $2m.

How did the invitation to be the curator come about?

PW: Probably partly due to my exhibition “Inklusion/Exklusion” [Graz, 1996], the first exhibition on globalisation. The vital, driving question is still who is outside and who is inside? The interesting thing is that all artists want to become part of Western art history, [even] Chinese artists [such as] Ai Weiwei.

So is cultural colonialism a key concept?

PW: Yes. Warhol and the whole pop art phenomenon was only a celebration of the American way of life…we were so powerful we could kid people that our ethical values, our lifestyle, were universal.

What makes the ZKM museum different?

PW: We undertake the traditional tasks of a museum, collecting and exhibiting. Collecting simply means ensuring that works do not disappear. With painting, the pictures are put on a wall; with media it’s more difficult because the equipment becomes obsolete. It makes us something of a Noah’s ark for media art. There are no professorships in restoring video and media art and so I set up a laboratory for antiquated video systems. We are the only people worldwide who can restore works of this kind. If the Pompidou Centre sends us something I do it free of charge on condition that I can keep a digital copy for research purposes—so in 100 years we will be the Louvre of media art.

Does this make it unique?

PW: It’s the only one in the world. We were the first media museum, but now we’re seeing a lot of imitation, in Asia and Spain. Even the Prado now has its own media section.

Working with outside experts is also central. Why?

PW: We have around 30 guest artists a year, because we research and produce and also make new works: this is what being a “centre” means.

You are also known for your scientific and theoretical writings.

PW: I’ve always felt at home in contrasting milieus—a phenomenon I call “optionalism”. With Valie Export, my partner at the time, I produced the Hundigkeit [performance] while at the same time studying mathematical logic.

Are you still a provocateur?

PW: Yes, to some extent. Although provocation has become obsolete. The difference is that where we (the provocateurs of the 1960s) once ended up at the police station, today you end up in Bayreuth.

You describe media art as a “revitalisation” of technologies. What do you mean by that?

PW: We can’t reverse the power of technology. We all know that the computer is a result of military technology. [Media theorist] Friedrich Kittler refers to media art, ironically, as the “misuse of military equipment”, which I call a process of “revitalisation”. Just as we have made [the ZKM] building—a munitions factory—into an art factory, so we also want to place military equipment at the service of civic society. We can’t do away with this power, but we can develop alternatives, without becoming an accomplice.

How do the technologies alter artistic creativity?

PW: The concept of creativity is expanded. In the modern age traditional craft was lost, but with technology it returns because the artist has to be a virtuoso once again.

Does this mean that every media artist also needs to be an expert in technology?

PW: To some extent, yes. Media art requires the kind of virtuosity that has always existed in the musical world. The score is a program, and Nam June Paik once said that he learned everything from score experiments. If someone is raging against media technology I have to object [and say] that paper is a medium too. Shakespeare wrote in a sonnet: “What’s in the brain that ink may character…”, which means I can think what I like but if I don’t have a medium—ink and paper—then it doesn’t exist. Our problem today is that we have to migrate with the media systems.

The ZKM—and I am proud of this—is a participatory museum. Art is a social construct and this institution only works when you participate: pressing buttons, fidgeting about on your seat. My favourite scenes are when eight-year-old kids are standing in front of the machines saying to their father: “I’ve told you twice how it works, so do you need me to show you again or have you got it now?”

What do you have planned for the next five years at ZKM?

PW: I would like to re-organise the museum, and bring in even more art experts. Major exhibitions are planned: on global art, comic art in the 20th century, the art of sound, and a sculpture exhibition.

I think that sculpture was presented in completely the wrong way in the last century. Everything followed Descartes, who divided the world into thinking and material, physical substances. Museum directors clearly haven’t realised yet that this is history. I’m not saying that Serra or Baselitz are bad, but the real achievement of 20th-century sculpture is that it is virtual: line, Plexiglass, holes, shadows, mirrors.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as “We will be the Louvre of media art”