Interviews

Free (With Admission) at the New Museum

Lisa Oppenheim, “The Sun is Always Setting Somewhere Else” (2006). Oppenheim’s project, which will be on display at “Free” in the form of 35 mm slides of her restagings of photographs taken by American soldiers in the US and Afghanistan, which she sourced from the image-sharing site Flickr. (image courtesy artist & Harris Lieberman gallery)

On October 20, the New Museum will open a new exhibition titled Free that will present 23 artists that reflect “artistic strategies that have emerged in a radically democratized landscape redefined by the impact of the web.” It’s an ambitious endeavor, and it’s great to see the New Museum attempting to integrate this brave new media world into the normally analog realm of the art museum.

Curated by Lauren Cornell, Executive Director of Rhizome and New Museum Adjunct Curator, the show is informed by the concept of “free culture,” which is a global movement fueled in part by Lawrence Lessig’s 2004 book of the same name and one that encourages file sharing (think Creative Commons). While free culture thinking is in the mix at Free, the focus is on the new openness that is still being negotiated in our society by corporations, governments, and individuals alike about this new “public” space that is the internet. Cornell hopes that the show will tackle some of the big issues in a way that the general public will be able to understand and engage with.

Her choice to create a physical exhibition out of work informed by the internet may be a controversial one but Cornell explains her decision. “Free will present an expansive conversation around how the internet has affected our landscape of information and notion of public space. The works aren’t exploring it formally as a medium, but rather responding to its broader cultural effects. The internet is a mass medium with mass engagement; artistic strategies that deal with it can be online, but can also take many different forms,” she says.

The following interview took place via email after meeting with the curator in person to discuss her exhibition.

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Hrag Vartanian: You mention in your press release that this exhibition was influenced by Seth Price’s essay “Dispersion” (PDF), in what way? The essay is also going to be an object in the exhibition, isn’t it? Do you view the essay as an artwork?

Takeshi Murata, “I, Popeye” (2010), color video with sound (image courtesy the artist) (click to enlarge)

Lauren Cornell: The dispersion of information and the way artists appropriate and engage with an expanded public space are the themes of Free. I didn’t start the show with “Dispersion” (2001 – ) but Seth and I agreed to include it early on. Throughout my research, I would return to it as I felt it foregrounded many important questions related to these themes. The essay is a series of propositions— he has edited it and re-edited it continually since 2001 — every time I read it, I took away something different.

For Free, I found his suggestion that public space was now defined more by “sites of reproduction and production” instead of a physical commons to be provocative and relevant to the way I see so many artists working. Free explores our new economy of information, in which access, creation, and exchange are increasingly important, and fraught issues. The exhibition moves in a lot of directions — showing ways artists utilize digital imagery in sculpture, photography, collage and video, and looking at pressing questions involved with an expanded public space, like what do we have access to? What is hidden? What are the possibilities and excesses of a more transparent, free culture? “Dispersion” exists both as an essay and as an installation — the former version is available online for free, the second will appear within the exhibition as a nine-panel installation.

Trevor Paglen, “They Watch the Moon” (2010), C-print (courtesy the artist) (click to enlarge)

HV: You talk about “free” culture but all the work in your show seems confined to the realm of what we consider the boundaries of contemporary art. Are artists simply taking the “free” and profiting from it? Can you explain the tension between the utopianism of “free” culture and the present-day realities of art?

LC: Free Culture is about freely sharing and distributing ideas; that ethos underlies the exhibition, as it is a fundamental part of so many contemporary artworks, and creative acts. As a movement, Free Culture is not about prohibiting artists from profiting, but rather keeping the public realm of ideas as open as possible, so that we can be an educated, progressive society with a memory that isn’t blurred by the absence of important culture, locked down by restrictive copyright. My show is not directly about the free culture movement, but is based in that philosophy.

I chose the title Free because it is a deeply ambiguous word and, in this context, it’s ironic. (The joke I keep telling, to varying degrees of amusement, is that the show subtitle is “with admission.”)

As you know, I direct Rhizome; we track and promote art engaged with the internet and new technologies, and most of our activities are online. But, in 2010, many artists are engaging with the web in what people consider more traditional forms. However, many of the works in Free are incredibly hybrid. Take Aleksandra Domanovic’s work “19:30” (2010). For the work, Domanovic traveled around the former Yugoslavia, going to television news stations and collecting the intro sequences to nightly news programs. With these graphical intro sequences, she created a singular historical archive — representing a kind of minor but meaningful aspect of a former country — and then released them online, and encouraged techno DJs to remix them. She chose that genre for its propensity to create many different variations of found music. The piece has a long life before it becomes a two-screen installation in the gallery, and I believe that is just one stop for it, that she has plans to continue developing it.

HV: I admit to being struck by Domanovic’s project and what sounds like her sensitivity to a level of hybrid culture that few people focus on in their art. It is a sensibility I find fascinating but it makes me wonder if there is a generational divide in the reception to this type of work. Is the field populated by very young artists? How old is the oldest artist in your show?

LC: That’s an interesting question. Hybridity in an artist’s practice is a mark of contemporary art, but what is different, as you point out, is this hyper sensitivity to context and an increasing interest in how information and images travel, pass through different hands and across platforms. The source material is hybrid. I think this is an emerging concern and condition for artists across generation, and across discipline. It is a central interest in some of the works in Free.

For instance, the new (as of yet untitled) video by Takeshi Murata, which features the character Popeye, whose European copyright expired and was endlessly remixed online.

Lisa Oppenheim, who largely works with film and photography, is presenting a work that features photographs, taken by soldiers in the US and Afghanistan, that she sourced from Flickr. And I’ve included a work by Liz Deschenes, her iconic “Green Screen #4” (2001) piece.

Reception is trickier, harder for me to generalize. Though I do think there is an outdated, but still persistent, idea that the web is outside of us, like a different place, when it is really made of us, for better or for worse.

What do you think about these generational questions?

Martijn Hendriks, “Untitled Black Video” (2008), video (image courtesy of artist) (click to enlarge)

HV: I worry that the divide is growing and not shrinking between the digital natives and the digital immigrants, to use Marc Prensky’s terms. Not that there aren’t very savvy older users of the web who understand it as intimately as any 16 year old, but I don’t know if you can really understand the emerging aesthetics of the web if you don’t use it on a daily (maybe even hourly) basis. Looking at it from the outside would probably make this world seem exotic and bizarre to the digital immigrants. Which brings me to my next question since I’m using terms that denote a sense of space. You are exhibiting these in physical space, why? And will there be an online component?

LC: Because, at the risk of sounding redundant, the work I was looking at was physical, was rematerializing digital imagery, or responding to issues in an expanded public space. I also wanted to create a big conversation around the issues involved. Some works, like Alexandre Singh’s ambitious installation “School of Objects Criticized,” examine overarching issues. “School of Objects Criticized” is a play enacted by objects, who are in a heated discussion about the issues and politics in a work (“School of Objects”) that the viewer never sees. The conversation harkens back to the chatter of a Molière play, but the issues are contemporary, and the transparency and tone connect to the new kind of fleeting community examined in Martijn Hendrik’s featured work, which re-presents comments sourced from an online video forum, of people anonymously responding to the leaked video of Saddam Hussein’s execution.

There is no printed catalog for the show, but there is a website, an ongoing blog that will include usual elements of a catalogue — information on all the artists and essays — and also supplemental material, related essays, artworks, and hopefully conversations that unfold during its run.

HV: In the spirit of your exhibition, will visitors to Free be allowed to take photos, video, or audio to remix at will and make something new out of it?

LC: Yes, photography & videotaping will be allowed.

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Free will be at the New Museum (235 Bowery, Manhattan) from October 20, 2010 – January 23, 2011 and it will featured the following artists: Liz Deschenes, Aleksandra Domanovic, Lizzie Fitch, Martijn Hendriks, Joel Holmberg, David Horvitz, Lars Laumann, Andrea Longacre-White, Kristin Lucas, Jill Magid, Hanne Mugaas, Takeshi Murata, Rashaad Newsome, Lisa Oppenheim, Trevor Paglen, Seth Price, Jon Rafman, Clunie Reid, Amanda Ross-Ho, Alexandre Singh, Ryan Trecartin & David Karp, and Harm Van Den Dorpel.

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