Peter Weibel: “Art has become irrelevant today”

As director of this centre for arts and media technology, Peter Weibel, says that media art can be more politically engaged because it relates to the new technologies and the new economic order

The centre for arts and media technology (ZKM) in Karlsruhe is quite an unusual institution; it houses a collection of media art, a media museum, a museum of contemporary art, a media theatre, an institute for music and media, an institute for the media of the image and a media library.

Peter Weibel, an Austrian, has been director and coordinator of the various activities of ZKM since 1999. He is an artist, exhibition curator and media theorist. He was formerly director of the Ars Electronica festival in Linz, and curator of the Austrian pavilion at the Venice Biennale (1993-1999).

He told the Art Newspaper, “We do not do themed exhibitions here. Our exhibitions are usually constructed around a problem that we consider to be topical”.

Mr Weibel sees the ZKM as a kind of Max Planck Institute for the arts, “ZKM represents the avant-garde in artistic experiment. It is not only a museum, it is a centre for creativity and for research, although it still fulfils the classical functions of a museum—collecting, collating, organising and presenting exhibitions etc.”

“We also produce acoustic and visual works of art, and we give artists working with new media the chance to use the latest technology, as well as expert advice and financial support.”

“The comparison with the Max Planck Institute is apt because we are also engaged in scientific research: we have a department devoted to Basic Research and a Net/Web Development department.”

The museum’s collection of Media Art, one of the largest in the world, is not on view at the moment because the main gallery is being used to show an exhibition of 60s art borrowed from private collections in Germany.

Mr Weibel regrets that the ZKM is so dependent on the prevailing mood of local politicians. “Of course I would rather show our collection of Media Art than the art in the MNK, but you know how it is… we have to please our paymasters. So the collection remains in store for the time being.”

The media museum is an experimental museum, completely interactive, which demonstrates new media by questioning them about their function and their functionality. “The Medienmuseum”, Mr Weigel explains, “has to be constantly updated because the exhibits age so quickly. The task of a museum is to conserve, but in this case we also have to ensure that as well as the innovatory characteristics of a given object it also has artistic value. The new media have always been focused on new developments; only something with artistic value will survive”.

The ZKM also offers a media library, open to students and to the public, with a considerable collection of electro-acoustic music, video art and 20th-century literature.

“Art is not restricted to a single medium. We are the only museum in Germany which poses no restrictions on media, whether material or practical. For example, we have a music department because we realised that moving images are often accompanied by sound. We provide the artists with the wherewithal to produce the soundtrack.”

ZKM acts as a brand name, a label, a production house. In addition to funding from local authorities, from the city of Karlsruhe (DM 16 million), and from Europe for individual projects, ZKM also raises its own money. It was recently commissioned by Sony, and by Volkswagen for whom a pavilion at the Hanover Fair was designed. It also has a three-year contract with Aventis, the bio-technology multinational, to create a web installation – a web site about life on the internet. Mr Weibel is particularly proud of his research sector. “One field of inquiry is the image technology of the future —the future of the cinema, in other words. The research centres on the spectator and on the construction of a new narrative style using new technology.”

“Another field is mathematical-neurological research, which has to do with our perception of the external world and the functioning of the brain cells. One of the results we hope to achieve is being able to see without eyes.”

What troubles Mr Weibel, is the fact that the centre is in the middle of nowhere in the German provinces. He quotes his role models for the place as the Pompidou Centre and the Moderna Museet in Stockholm when Pontus Hulten was director.

“As an institution we have links with foreign countries, and yet we are closely bound to the city of Karlsruhe and the region of Baden-Württemberg. It would certainly be more convenient to work somewhere more central like Paris, but we collaborate with a number of institutions abroad, such as M.I.T. Press.”

To return to Media Art, Mr Weibel repeats that it is strongly narrative and can be actively critical through the involvement of the spectator.

“The art for which the 20th century will be remembered is abstract art, free of representational content, but it is inconceivable to me that we should continue to produce abstract art for the next 100 or 200 years.”

“Art has become irrelevant today because it has no need to be representational, it has become purely decorative. In the past, 500 years ago, until the end of the 19th century, artists were specialists: the only people able to produce images.”

“150 years ago, with the advent of photography, art lost its ‘representational’ prerogative and the task of ‘making people see’. Nowadays it is the doctors, the astronomers and other scientists who show us the most important images.”

“So what is the field of reference for artists today? The mass media, for example, as in the work of Douglas Gordon; fashion with Vanessa Beecroft. Meanwhile the museums are developing strategies to attract visitors: nude models, sport, etc. In order to survive, art has sought to ally itself with the mass media to draw the crowds.”

“Rem Koolhaas is designing Prada’s new boutiques. In this case art is thrown to the winds. But there is another possibility, which is to take sides with the people opposed to globalisation. The artist can decide to involve himself with social, economic, political or scientific processes.”

“We media artists can relate to the world which is being changed by the new technologies and the new economic order better than artists working in the traditional media. The question is: do we want to support “turbocapitalism” with our work, or would we prefer to operate as its critics?”

What are Peter Weibel’s plans for the future? “I hope to have time to finish a long poem which I have begun. It is called “America, the most dangerous nation in the world.”

ZKM’s programme

o At the end of September ZKM will be hosting a two-day symposium devoted to Guy Debord, and an exhibition in memory of the philosopher of “La société de spectacle” (29-30 September).

o October sees an exhibition entitled “The rhetoric of surveillance from Bentham to Big Brother”, curated by Thomas Y. Levin. This will include work by about 50 international artists who all confront the subject of the control mechanisms used by contemporary society, from television cameras to inner city CCTVs, communication technology used by individuals (mobile phones, e-mail) to voyeuristic media soaps such as Big Brother.

The point of departure for this investigation of the imagery of surveillance technology by Mr Levin, a guest lecturer this year at the Free University of Berlin, is the philosophical writing of Jeremy Bentham (1784-1832), particularly his model of the imaginary prison which he called his “Panopticon”. Another source is Michel Foucault’s discussion of repression and surveillance in contemporary society published in 1975. The artists in the show include Vito Acconci, Bureau of Inverse Technology, Sophie Calle, Harun Farocki, Dan Graham, Rem Koolhaas, Bruce Naumann, Walid Raad, Thomas Ruff, Ann-Sofi Sidén, Frank Thiel, visomat inc., and Andy Warhol. Mr Weibel (who is also participating as one of the artists) explained, “that the exhibition has a didactic purpose: methods of control are on display about which the public has very little knowledge. Art attempts (successfully) to demonstrate processes which are not well known to the public, or are concealed; for example, the way the world is changing because of the permanent control exercised by surveillance technology.”

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as “Art has become irrelevant today”