DIGITAL OBJECTS: Tamas Banovich

Posted by Rhizome | Thu Jan 16th 1997 1 a.m.

DIGITAL OBJECTS contributor Cornelia Sollfrank is an artist from
Hamburg, currently living in New York City. Central to her conceptual
and performative works are the changing notions of art, the advent of a
new image of the artist in the information age, gender-specific handling
of technology, as well as new forms of dissemination of art. She is a
member of the artist group "-Innen+".

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Cornelia: Tamas, you are running Postmasters Gallery together with your
wife Magda Sawon now for 14 years. What kind of art do you present?

Tamas: We've always been interested in emerging art, mostly conceptually
based, not even that, let's better call it intelligent art or cerebral
art.

C.: Have you been involved in media art before starting the shows on
digital art?

T.: We were never seriously involved in video art. We never had a total
understanding of it, because it all had started before we came to the
US. It was already some years old, and we came from the eastern Europe
where the technology as well as the information was quite inacessable.
We had a lot to learn about it, but never felt confident enough to
seriously get into it. Also as a small gallery, you don't have enough
capacity to handle large, technologically heavy installations.

C.: Last year you started showing new media art in two big shows. How
did you get in touch with this new art form?

T.: Well, I knew that something was going on out there with new media,
but it really came to me in a very small way. We had computers here for
several years, in the office, and then one night when I was sitting in
front of the computer, and after a while this abstract screensaver came
up and I was looking at it, and looking at it, and suddenly realized
that this is something different, this is a new art form. That's how my
interest started and I wanted to learn more about it. I wanted to learn
about digital art and I was very much interested in the internet. At the
same time I was afraid, because I've seen some people around here who
totally disappeared after they got on the internet, they got lost. I
contacted one of these guys who used to be an artist. I asked him to
show me what's this whole thing about. I thought he was doing something
there, some artwork, but he was just surfing, for hours, days, from one
site to another without any apparent reason. As I'm an obsessive
character, too, I thought maybe the best way to get acquainted with it
and not get sucked in, was to do a project. I asked around and noticed
that there is a lot going on, I just didn't know about it. I decided to
do a project on the computer - with the computer and on the internet.

C.: When was this and what was the project that finally came out?

T.: It was two and a half years ago when I started and the project
turned out to be the "Can you Digit" show last year, an exhibition on
this kind of art. My idea was that there must be people whose primary
tool is the computer. Many artists like Jenny Holzer are using the
computer as a tool to do art, but it's not their medium. In the same way
as I could use a brush and do a painting, but this wouldn't make me a
painter.

C.: What are the qualities that the projects you show here must have?
Can you describe this?

T.: My premise was that there must be people out there who really use
the computer as their medium and these are the artists with whom I'm
working. I talk to them, try to understand what the properties of this
medium are, where the possibilities lie and then I look at the projects.
It's a tricky thing, because if you analyze, deep down, it's basically
that several other mediums come together in the computer. So it's
necessary to clearly distinguish what is specific to the computer and
what would also by possible by other media. Most important seems to me
the hypertext structure, the branch structure, but also the
immateriality, the bits, which have certain properties. And the computer
has a certain structure which allows certain things and makes others
impossible.

C.: How did the show end up looking like? How did you present these
projects which are not objects?

T.: The show looked very uniform. There were 23 monitors in two long
rows and three wall projections. What attracted me was that the works
are essentially immaterial. I like to use the metaphor of a book in the
way that it has a physicality, but when you open it and start to read,
you become immersed and it becomes all immaterial. If you compare it,
the monitor is the physical part, so when it is a good work you
immediately forget the monitor and are immersed.

C.: One can make the distinction in new media art between installations
which require and define a certain space or even work on sculptural
aspects and works which only require the monitor to become visible, but
have no further relation to the space around it. And I think this
distinction will continue to make sense for the future. Another aspect
is that many people used to compare new media art to video art, where,
because the communication-broadcasting projects could not be marketed,
the movement split into two parts, a smaller part of media activists and
the majority which ended up doing installations and objects for the art
market. How do you think the new media artists will react to the
requirements of an art market?

T.: It's hard to say. Perhaps we'll have a similar development. Nobody
knows. What I'm trying to do at the moment is to talk to collectors and
convince them that we're at the beginning of a whole new area. Everybody
asks how digital art can be collected. What do you buy? The works can be
replicated. Actually, I think you don't just have to buy the piece, but
also the hardware playing the it, because ten years from now there will
be a totally different technology. I'm sure the current works will
become historical artifacts which show the very beginning of this kind
of art. And even if everyone can copy them today, noone will have them
in 20 years.

C.: How would you define your role?

T.: Basically, I want to make good art shows and I always want to make
things happen. And as I'm interested in this new medium I try to find
good works done with it, because not everything artists do with a
computer is necessarily good art. But most important to me is the art
aspect, I am not interested in the technology itself. I also try to
figure out how artists can do it, how technology can be made accessible
and I try to get these artists together. And there is this whole new
generation of people working with computers who wouldn't consider
themselves artists and who are totally excluded from the art world. So I
bring these young artists to the art world and at the same time I
introduce the art world to this medium. And I also want to attract
different kinds of people to art. As we all know, there is a crisis.
People are not much interested in art at the moment and there is a kind
of a generation gap on the collectors' side. The upcoming "generation X"
people have no interest or understanding in collecting art. At the same
time, many people out there are working with computers and by looking at
new media art I want them to realize that a computer is not just a tool
for work. I want to cross over these different areas.

C.: I'd say that many of the young people doing computer art today are
not at all interested in the art world, even antagonistic to it.

T.: But they certainly want to show their work. And I think the idea
that the internet is an ideal platform to show art is totally utopian.
Maybe three years ago it was possible, because there were so few things
on line. Nowadays, it is flooded with millions of sites. Nobody will go
there, nobody will find it. So this idea that the internet cut out the
middleman is nonsense for two reasons: one, an artist will never have a
presence because it is flooded; two, because it is flooded, it becomes
like the real world, where people generally rely on a certain value
judgement, made by professionals. They don't have the time and interest
to look at everything. Even if galleries have to be reinvented for the
new situation, nevertheless, the idea that there are people who make a
value judgement and present this works and try to make sense out of it
and develop criticism is absolutely necessary.

C.: How was the reaction of the audience on your shows?

T.: It was incredible. Just the opening event was amazing. We basically
didn't advertise it, because there was no time or money left. Anyway,
there was a mob scene here. There were something like 2000 or 3000
people standing in line all down the street, waiting to get in. And
during the week we always had 20, 30 to 50 visitors in the show.
Nevertheless, it is really NOT what a gallery should do, because it is
not profitable at all and it's technologically very complex and
expensive for such a small place.

C.: How did you select the artists you have shown here?

T.: I didn't want it to become a New York show, so I got on the
internet, started to read all the magazines and then I started to send
out e-mail. Many of them were from the West Coast, from all over the
place... What I am interested in is still very open, but hypertext based
works, for example are very important. I want to include them in the
next show. Of course it is a kind of literature, but I think it
corresponds very much with the medium itself. Basically the works should
be simple and ruled by the ideas behind it, and not by the technology.

Another thing that's happening with this whole technology is that some
people think that setting up systems of communication or communicating
is art. Most artists in this area discuss this. It's even just like
early conceptualism, when artists just came together and talked. I think
this whole idea about the internet - that it allows a different level of
social conciousness and social communication, all this talk about
community and democracy - is nonsense. The people do nothing else but
sit in front of the computer and write. Is it art what they produce, all
these texts that nobody reads? Perhaps it will lead to somewhere. But
what is definitely needed is criticism, to weed out...

C.: There are artists who say that they are no longer producing art but
that communicating is what they are doing now.

T.: Right. It can be an artistic activity. But again it reminds me of
early conceptualism. And what was very disappointing about this was that
it all disappeared. And this will also be the fate of this thing. Maybe
that's fine, it's just transitional. For me it's not so interesting,
because I want to make events, I want to show something. On the other
hand I might do some event where believers can clash with nonbelievers.

C.: What are your plans for the future?

T.: I am planning several things. One, for example, is a web site for
web-specific projects. Also, I am working on a concept for a huge
project which works on the "world wide" idea of the internet - the
network. Furthermore I am part of the Foundation for Digital Culture
here in New York City which plans several things for this year. And we
will have a show of Perry Hoberman, something for the summer and I hope
to put together an international show with Tim Druckrey for late fall or
the following spring.

C.: Thanks a lot for the conversation.
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