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Interview with Matthew Mirapaul

[After four years of covering new media art, Matthew Mirapaul's
New York Times column arts@large appeared last Thursday for the
last time. Read reactions at:
http://www.wired.com/news/culture/0,1284,37843,00.html]

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Simon Hadler: Your motto is told to be "a Thelonious Monk Tune a day
keeps all kinds of viruses away." Which song describes your mood
concerning the termination of arts@large?

Matthew Mirapaul: "Just Friends"–"Just friends, lovers no more. Just
friends, but not like before." I no longer have a regular outlet for
fine-arts stories, as I did with the column, but I already have several
assignments from the print edition of the Times, and I hope to receive
more. So far, though, they are not for fine-arts stories, but perhaps
that will change over time as interest in the Internet as a creative
medium continues to grow.

SH: Why was arts@large terminated, anyway? I had the feeling that it was
very successful.

MM: You should really ask the Times that question. The Wired News
article quoted a Times spokes person saying the decision was based on
"business reasons."

SH: How come that a computer industry executive turned to writing about
art? And what was the idea behind starting arts@large?

MM: I've always been passionate about the arts, and was a music reviewer
in the Detroit area early in my career. But I had a job opportunity in
high technology and took it. Ten years later, when I was ready to do
something else, a friend suggested I find a way to combine my knowledge
of computers with my passion for the arts.

Several months later, as the Times was preparing to launch its Web site,
another friend submitted my name as a possible candidate for writing. I
wanted to write about music online, but the editor asked me to cover all
the arts. It was just about the only editorial guidance I ever received,
but as the visual and graphic arts on the Internet have exploded, it
proved to be a good piece of advice.

SH: January 1996 must have been a thrilling time to start to write about
art on the web. Everything had just began. Where you "hit by the hype"?

MM: Not at all. And indeed, it wasn't thrilling so much as a gradual
process of discovery for me. If you look at the early columns, you can
see that I wrote more about arts-related Web sites than works made
specifically for the medium. Eventually, though, I focused the column on
people who did creative things with digits, not people who did creative
things and posted them digitally. But there was little hype. Most of the
sources I talked to were artists, educators and scientists who, in the
open spirit of the early Net, were excited to share their work with an
interested observer. As the Net has become more commercial, that's
changed and I find I have to spend a lot more time filtering out the
hype.

SH: In your column, you often wrote about institutions dealing with
net.art. Whether it was Peter Weibel's Net_Condition, the Ars
Electronica festival or the Whitney Biennial. Many artists in the field–
or at least those with the louder voices on nettime & co.–are firmly
opposed to that developement. Is it that bad that net.art is heading
towards the museums?

MM: Museum involvement in digital art is not just good, it's essential.
I understand the purist resistance to institutionalized art, especially
when a medium is new, but the museums that are involved are validating
the form for everyone and will only inspire its growth and acceptance.
Plus, the museums that are commissioning work are helping to establish
an economy for the form.

SH: Another development the hard liners of net.art oppose is the very
slowly beginning commercialization of the genre. But is there any money
in it after all?

MM: Yes, there's money in it. There has to be. Artists want to be paid
for their work–artists *deserve* to be paid for their work–and I'm
confident that a functional economic model will be established for the
form, probably some mix of commissions, pay-per-view exhibitions and
saleable pieces. The mechanics are yet to be determined, but they will
be. Although there are some artists who say, "I want to be a painter" or
"I want to play the vibraphone," in my experience, most artists say, "I
am compelled to be creative" and turn to whatever expressive tools are
at hand. And these days, computers are everywhere.

SH: Concerning the jury of this year's prix Ars Electronica, net.art is
deader than dead. Many others think so, too. Can it be, that the artists
of the genre have run out of new, astonishing ideas after only five or
six years of its existence?

MM: Don't judge the state of digital art by the Ars Electronica jury
decisions in recent years, which increasingly seem to be designed to
make a political statement or cause a stir rather than to reward
important work. But there is plenty of strong work out there, and a lot
more on the way. I agree that it's been rather quiet lately, with a
little too much emphasis on conceptual projects that are mostly designed
for the sake of getting attention, but I think what's actually happening
is that the good artists are struggling to determine in which directions
to next push the genre. Certain styles of digital art may be on the way
out, but that signals evolution, not extinction.

SH: net.art is a very heterogenous field. What you once called
"conceptual pranks," ASCII Art, highly sophisticated "interactive" flash
movies, hypertext and so on… What do you think are the most
interesting developments?

MM: All of them.

SH: Are there developments you consider problematic?

MM: See above.

SH: Do you have something like "my favorite net.art.work"?

MM: One of the great luxuries of the column was that there was so much
good work out there that I almost entirely was able to discuss works
that I thought were interesting, exciting and important. My favorites
changed every week.

SH: At the end of each year, you have made predictions about the
upcoming year. Now that your column won't go on after–nearly–five
interesting years, what are your predictions for the next five years?

MM: The future lies ahead.

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