My older brother and I were standing on the curbstone on the main street in my Prague neighborhood. I was seven years old at the end of April 1961, two weeks after the historical moment when the first human flew in space. An open limousine suddenly appeared with Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin waving to the crowds. As a small-sized person in a dense crowd not knowing in which direction to look, I missed seeing this hero of all humanity. Although I missed seeing him, I felt the vibrant energies of the cheering crowds for a long time afterwards.
Four years later, cheering crowds standing along the curb greeted Pope Paul VI waving from an open limousine driving down Fifth Avenue. In the crowd was a Korean man who had recently arrived in New York. He was holding the first black and white portable video camera shooting the scene. This young man was destined to become the father of video art. His name was Nam June Paik. I had the good fortune to be his student twenty years later only because of my escape to the West in 1969 after the Soviet tanks invaded the former Czechoslovakia.
In 1981, I drove a horse and open carriage down Fifth Avenue into Central Park. After studying medicine for several years on graduating from high school in Germany, I realized that my future was not being a physician like my father and brother, but rather in the realm of visual media. I moved to New York and lived in the Westbeth art community on the Hudson River. In order to pay my rent, I earned a license as a horse-cab driver.
Perhaps, I should start somewhere else. We are in the year 1942 at my parents’ wartime wedding. They are wearing yellow stars on their chests, kissing their parents goodbye on the run, not knowing that they would never see them again. As a small boy, I could not understand how my friends had grandparents and even great-grandparents. I had none. When I was 12, I first learned about the Holocaust madness that had exterminated my parents’ entire family because they were Jews. It was not surprising that my parents did not speak to me about this unspeakable horror until I was 12, since we continued to live in the anti-Semitic environment of the former post-Stalinist Czechoslovakia where it was best not to be identified as a Jew.
In my home, the integration of art and science flowed naturally since my father was both a musician and scientist. He had survived the war years with my mother as a musician with false identification papers often playing piano at parties where the Nazis were celebrating. After the war, he studied medicine and became a medical scientist. He would come home after a long day at work and play piano while I sat beside him listening. My father was also a composer who composed Czech tangos and rumbas which were released as recordings and played on the radio.
Ironically, my Jewish identify was awakened after arriving in West Germany. I changed overnight from a young Communist Pioneer to a Western hippie. I grew long hair, wore a goat-fur jacket embroidered with colorful flowers, started to socialize within the Jewish community of Dusseldorf, and joined a Zionist group. The true reason for joining this group had little to do with leaving for Israel. It gave me the opportunity to be accepted into a marijuana-smoking hippie circle of friends that helped transform the trauma of emigration into a positive experience isolating me from the brown shirt mentality of the older generation of Germans. It was even more difficult for my parents to relate to a generation with a Nazi past that included the murderers of their parents. I remember sitting with my parents in our new home in Germany watching the moon landing on our Czech black and white TV. This moment awaked in me the power of a real-time media experience.
However, there were earlier fascinating media experiences in my Prague childhood that had impact on my work as a media artist - frequenting the cinema, developing photographs in my neighbor’s makeshift darkroom, immersion in a 360o panoramic film happening, seeing early time-base imagery in a technical museum, and creating an instant camera anticipating Polaroid. There were two movie theaters near where we lived and my friend and I would go there nearly every Sunday for the morning matinee. We saw Karel Zeman’s fantastical films which are often shown today in university film schools and new media departments as early examples of compositing visualization. In contemporary terminology, it’s called a “virtual set” in which technology allows the combination of actual actors with virtual reality creating a virtual setting and even individual characters. Zeman was a pioneer with this technology, and later I became interested in it as well.
I remember another early experience with film when my father took me to the panoramic cinema at the Holesovice amusement park. Inside a round building there was a circular screen on which was projected a 360˚ panoramic film from a Russian projection system. Spectators didn’t sit as in a normal cinema but stood in the middle watching the changing view from an airplane. I remember that the plane began to bank making people lose their balance and fall to the ground. This was a powerful experience. In the same fair grounds in 1891, the artist Marold created a panorama, an image where reality and fiction were blurred, where three-dimensional objects emerged from a 360o panoramic painting. This interaction between reality and fiction later became one of the main features of my work. My friend and I made a make-believe “camera” from a cardboard box in which we placed pictures we had drawn in advance. We would go to the park and ask people walking by if we could photograph them. If someone agreed, we would click the “shutter release” and pull from the “camera” one of the pictures to give to the person we had “photographed.” My childhood invention was the “precursor” to the Polaroid camera. A few years later, the son of my parents’ friends from New York came for a visit with an actual Polaroid. I wasn’t at all surprised.
When I was fifteen years old, I saw what appeared to be an action movie in the making hiking with my friend in the countryside not far from Prague. At the horizon, hundreds of tanks where rolling over the hills in the far distance. When we realized that what we were seeing on that summer morning in 1968 was not a movie, but the beginning of the invasion of the Russian army into Czechoslovakia, we ran down the road tearing down all the direction signs to make it difficult for the invading soldiers to find their way. This image will forever remain etched in my mind along with the horrible feeling of being helpless and powerless.
I was fortunate to have been born in Prague, a city permeated by the myth of the Golem, a pre-robotic being created by mystical algorithms four centuries ago invoked by Rabbi Judah Loew, the spiritual father of Norbert Wiener’s cybernetic theory. Prague is the city in which the Czech word “robot” was conceived, the Golem was born, and Kafka told the tale of the metamorphosis of a young man into a giant cockroach. It is also the city in which the first interactive cinema, “Kinoautomat,” and the phenomenon of “Laterna Magika,” the fluid transition between the stage and projected film, were invented. Publishing the first illustrated book for children in 1658, the visionary Czech educator Comenius pioneered in developing a system of media pedagogy of great significance in new media studies.
I was fortunate once again to have immigrated to Dusseldorf where I studied in a high school not far from the illustrious Art Academy there. The Academy radiated out to the community at large, so I felt part of what was going on there. I couldn’t help but notice the reverberations being sent out by the life pulsating there. Near the Academy were a number of cafés and bars where students and professors congregated. I spent a lot of time in one such local hangout that was named Creamcheese. Its interior was created by members of the ZERO group, Otto Piene, Günter Mack, Heinz Ücker, and was later installed in Düsseldorf’s Museum Kunst Palast. This environment had a strong impact on me without my being entirely aware of everything that was going on there. In our neighborhood, I often saw Joseph Beuys. He was indeed larger-than-life, and not just because of his height and hat, but because he drove a Bentley. The strength of his personality and work wasn’t clear to me until two years before I entered the Academy. I became aware of the significance of the art scene in Düsseldorf when I saw a video installation for the first time in my life in the city’s Kunsthalle. Today, it’s considered a seminal piece. It was created by Shigeko Kubota, Nam June Paik’s wife, and was based on Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase. Although I appreciated the artistic energies in Dussledorf, I decided to study medicine that I enjoyed for three years and thought that this was going to be my profession. When I realized that the life of a physician was not what I really wanted for myself, I left medical school and left Dusseldorf for New York. I was always grateful for the ongoing support for my quest offered by my brother, Peter, himself a physician and collector of Czech avant-garde art.
When I first came to New York City in 1978, the cosmopolitan atmosphere of the city was liberating for me, even though my existence there was very tenuous. It was important to me that no one asked who I was or where I came from. It didn’t matter. Being in New York gave me a burst of energy that dissipated when I relocated at the edge of a California redwood forest, in the beautiful mountains around Santa Cruz. In this perfect paradise where I did not have anything particular to do, I felt no motivation to do anything at all. I soon realized I needed the vibrant energy and existential challenge of a big city and returned to New York to begin intensive work in photography. A turning point came when I definitively decided to pursue photography as a profession. This came from meeting New York photographer Frederic Cantor, whose work I admired. He didn’t know it, but for me at that time he was a real guru. I tried to imitate his work My New York photographs, created under Cantor’s influence, and helped me eventually get accepted to the Düsseldorf Academy of Fine Art.
I returned to Germany to work for Monochrom magazine, which offered me the freedom to create a wide variety of photographs that it published. The magazine was very progressive for its time, sometimes even provocative, both in content and design. I mostly did portraits of friends, people I was acquainted with, strong personalities for the most part. The photos were pseudo-staged in often-bizarre situations that were created without a lot of prior preparation. The magazine soon folded. I suppose it was too experimental for its time. During this period, however, I never really considered myself a professional photographer even though it paid my rent.
I first applied to the Düsseldorf Academy of Fine Arts in 1983. Although I was not accepted, something positive did come out of it as Joseph Beuys organized a special exhibition of those who were rejected. He was already so famous that he could invite the press. This exhibition of the rejected threw into doubt the very social status of the “Artist” and “Art.” The following year, I was accepted into Bernd Becher’s photography atelier at a time that photography was starting to become accepted on equal footing with the classical fine arts. My schoolmates, who continued with photography, Andreas Gursky, Thomas Struth, and Thomas Ruff, later became successful artists. For me, the work in Becher’s atelier was boring. The conceptualism he encouraged did absolutely nothing for me although I appreciated it in Becher’s work itself. However, I found the work his students were producing banal and foreign to me.
I met Nam June Paik by accident at the opening of an exhibition. I told him I’d like to study under him and he didn’t ask for any further details about me. He just said, “You are my student.” When someone came up to him, he introduced me as his new student. I was really lucky because it was not so easy to get into his atelier. He did not take everyone. When I began to study with Paik, a new period began for me. I felt like I had found my element working with video. Outwardly he was very humble. He was even skeptical about his own work. But looking back now, I realize that maybe this was a tactic of his. What impressed me about Paik though was his lack of pretension and his interest in just everyday things. I think that’s why students liked him so much. He never played the star and you could speak to him about anything. Most people do not know this, but there would be situations when if he liked a student’s work he would simply buy it. He didn’t do this because he was collecting these objects but so that he could use it in his own installations. He considered it a form of partnership. He wasn’t misusing his students’ work. For me of course what was most important about Paik was his openness to his students. That was the greatest lesson for me, the one I identified with the most. I try to maintain this sort of openness with my own students. I consider them more as partners who I can learn from despite their age or limited experience.
At the Academy, Joseph Beuys had created a space he called Freie Internationale Universität (FIU). It was a gesture on his part to represent a clear alternative to academic seclusion, an open space within a closed space. Beuys of course always had his devotees around him. My friend the Bolivian painter Ricardo Peredo and I began to associate with Beuys and his group. He was such a charismatic personality that he attracted us to him. On the other hand, we felt uncomfortable with his students who acted like members of as difficult to define sect. When Beuys spoke, it was like they were listening to a sermon. Beuys’s lectures themselves were incredibly inspirational and they forced us to think about the role of the artist and his work in a social context. He propagated a completely different type of artistic work. He thought the artist should create “social sculptures,” that is, the artist’s work should be focused on mending the world. I still mull this idea over today and always return to it and try to discuss it with my students as well.
My video-installations evolved into video-sculptures at the end of my studies in Düsseldorf. The difference between the two is not exactly clear. The term “video-sculpture” didn’t exist until it was used for the first time in 1986 (Videoskulptur in German) by the curator Wulf Herzogenrath for an exhibition at the Kölnischer Kunstverein. I guess one distinction is that video-installations use monitors as the central element. In a video-sculpture, the object itself is so central that if the monitors are switched off, it still can be a meaningful artwork. I created Menorah at the end of my studies without having any idea what sort of response it eventually would have. It had small TV monitors at the ends of each of seven braches of a large steel candelabrum. On the monitors’ screens, video images of flickering flames danced. These virtual flames emanated from a hidden video transmitter sending spiritual messages to antennas topping each of the seven monitors.
Menorah directly referenced my Jewish identity in a German context. The first place in Germany that provided me some comfortable surroundings was the Düsseldorf Jewish community. However, it took me a long while before I was ready to openly and publicly acknowledge my Jadishness. The first time I publicly displayed Menorah at the Academy, I placed a ring around it made of defunct fire extinguishers. They weren’t so easy to find because at the time everyone in Germany had the Baader-Meinhof Gang and other terrorist groups still fresh in their minds and their bombs were made out of old fire extinguishers. Nevertheless, I wanted to show the installation like this. I wanted to say that these old extinguishers were like old Nazis who no longer had the strength to snuff the flame of the menorah. This was the only time I used this literal interpretation when exhibiting Menorah. Actually, it was David Galloway, the noted curator and art critic writing for the International Herald Tribune, who convinced me that the object was powerful enough on its own. The work was in great demand. I won a number of awards for it and it went from exhibition to exhibition. Actually, there exist two copies of Menorah. One was bought from me by ZKM [Zentrum für Kunst und Medientechnologie] in Karlsruhe as the very first work for its collection (so it was given identification number 001). The second was commissioned in 2001 by the Jewish Museum in Berlin at the architect Daniel Libeskind’s request.
Shortly after the fall of the Communist system in Eastern Europe in 1990, I was invited to return to Prague to found the first department of new media art in the region. When I spoke to my mentor Nam June Paik about the offer of a professorship in new media at the Academy of Fine Arts in Prague, he told me “Go for it! Good luck!” and spontaneously gave me 5,000 German Marks to get the new department started. With this money and some additional sponsorship, I purchased two video cameras and three video editing systems. This very basic video equipment was the basis for creating a lively and creative department in a cubistic villa next to the main Art Academy building. In the first years, I worked with my students on some early communications art projects like IPI (International Painting Interactive) in collaboration with students in many other countries who collectively created a virtual painting using a graphics tablet and modem. We were also involved in a pioneering interactive television project (Piazza Virtuale) which was presented at the 1992 Documenta IX in Kassel, Germany. The seminal philosopher of media, Vilem Flusser, inspired my students with his highly original lectures. After his tragic death, we organized a series of “Vilem Flusser Symposia” in collaboration with Prague’s Goethe Institute.
During this period in Prague, I developed projects using locative media such as global positioning systems (GPS) that were presented at Ars Electronica in Linz, Austria. My Intelligent Mailman at Ars Electronica was the first GPS artwork ever. I integrated GPS and Internet technologies in a performance artwork that electronically transmitted my wandering through the Negev Desert for four days retracing the steps of Moses in the Exodus from Egypt. I also created virtual environments at the Babeinsberg High-Tech Center in Berlin and at the ZKM Center for Art and Media in Karsruhe.
Living at the intersections of Czech and German cultures was and continues to be an amazing trigger for creative thought and action. Switching time-space while reflecting on one’s encounter with changing environments is a great teacher for a creative person. I felt that the new found freedom in Eastern Europe produced a level of energy and creative potential at the time that was much stronger than what was happening in Western Europe. I traveled extensively throughout the former Communist world between 1990 and 2000 as advisor to the Soros Centers for Contemporary Arts creating educational departments and centers for new media art from Bucharest, Odessa, and Moscow, to Alma-Ata in Kazakhstan. I began the new millennium lecturing on new media arts in Thailand and founding with Francis Wittenberger the New Media Arts Festival in Bangkok. My experience in Asia led me to realize how much more dynamic this part of the world was in comparison to the more staid culture of Western Europe.
The challenge in educating future generations in the field of digital arts is the rapidly changing conditions that make today’s media theory stale tomorrow. We know that ideas we taught a decade ago are irrelevant today. Perhaps, the most significant change is the democratization of video and computer technologies that makes everyone a potential digital artist. The aim to create Soros media centers in Eastern Europe modeled after the ZKM Center for Art and Media and MIT’s Center for Advanced Visual Studies and Media Lab required heavy funding for sophisticated equipment and facilities. The concentration of digital art production in these centers has given way to powerful media tools that are cheap enough and compact enough for anyone to create serious digital artworks in their home. Prestigious media art festivals like Ars Electronica in Linz and Tranmediale in Berlin are having to reinventing themselves to claim to continue be innovative, risky, and fresh.
What is the role of the artist in society in the 21st century is the primary question? We need to completely rethink stereotypic images of the artist and the concept of the art school that are becoming obsolete. Perhaps art schools can be replaced by mobile educational units that adapt to alternative cultural environments. We need to acknowledge the hundreds of millions of pictures produced worldwide daily. This enormous inflation of images is radically changing our sensibilities. It is causing cultural pollution of our environment that may be as great a threat to our mind and souls as physical pollution is to our bodies. Does it make sense to educate our students to produce more and more images? Perhaps we need to encourage the practice of cultural ecology by creating an ecological movement against image pollution of our environment like those acting against chemical pollution. Students in a post-digital age are already creating new forms of dematerialized art - net art, locative media, data and information visualization, telematics - that reaches into public spaces globally and even beyond our planet.
My impression is that most educational institutions are producing artists who are often swallowed by the media industry - television, advertising, and other large media corporations. Although I recognize that students coming out of art schools have to pay rent and other costs of living, they should not sell out to industry, but rather have the self-confidence to promote their unique qualifications as creative partners when negotiating projects with commercial enterprises. From the beginning, they should build a symbiotic relationship between themselves as media artists and commercial enterprises.
Although few art educators like to talk about it, I see many art schools around the world succumbing to financial pressures forcing them to often accept less talented young people just because they bring tuition money to the school. I am very much aware of the privilege I had in Prague where this was simply not an issue.
My 16 years teaching at the Academy of Fine Arts in Prague convinced me that the key to educating future digital artists is not the quality of the school, it is not the professor, but the quality of the student who gets accepted. In Prague, I was fortunate to always be able to choose the best of the best. Consequently, those students were from the beginning more my partners than students. My students in Prague were invited and won awards in such new media art festivals as Ars Electronica in Linz or Transmediale in Berlin where they were not considered as students but as professional artists!
I guess I was lucky again to be appointed as a full-time professor and head of the Digital Arts Department at the University of Arts and Design in Karlsruhe, Germany. The fact that the school is situated at the same giant building as the ZKM Center for Art and Media is a great advantage for the students. They can see world-class media art shows, attend events with top international performers, and hear lectures by some of the most important artists and theoreticians in the world. After 16 years in Prague, I am leaving the dreamy and poetic city to the more rational and functional Karlsruhe. This is my third emigration between Czech Republic and Germany.
Although primarily conceptual in orientation, my department at the Art Academy in Prague was also a technological laboratory in which there was a lots of freedom given to the students who, in turn, were expected to assume individual responsibility. Most students understood this challenge. Others misused it to their disadvantage. I believe that it is important to work with the students on highly innovative, challenging, and risky issues. My experience taught me that project-centered study motivates students more and is generally a more efficient educational methodology than more formal methods. It has also taught me the significance of being open to learning from teachers and colleagues through ongoing dialogue. My long-term dialogue and friendship with key thinkers and artists, such as Nam June Paik, Vilem Flusser, Woody Vasulka, Mel Alexenberg, and Peter Weibel, has enriched me and facilitated my seeing alternative perspectives on life and art
Students should be encouraged to develop the need to break out of institutionalized frameworks. The young generation should learn to take risks rather than always follow their teachers. Often students exhibit fresh visions than exceed those of their professors. It is our duty to support their visions even when our egos are sometimes hurt. They should ask if the so-called art system (art school, gallery, museum, art critic, curator, art magazine, art fair etc…) is the right framework for a digital artist at the beginning of the 21st century knowing very well how much this system is corrupted where often financial interests dominate and manipulate the art market independent of the quality of the artworks.
For the past two years, my wife, Kamila Bielicka Richter, and I have been collaborating on a project that we call “Falling Life.” It operates completely outside of the art system. It is an ongoing project that was introduced for the first time in Berlin in August 2005. This urban screening project needs neither a curator nor a gallery. It does not need a fixed place or access to the electric power. We are equipped with a car, a laptop, a compact powerful projector, and a small power generator. With this very mobile equipment, we are able to create an instant presence in the urban landscape. We transform city architecture into dynamic and living organisms. Without any on-site preparation and without any permits, we operate a kind of guerilla-style projection. Within less than ten minutes, we can illuminate giant buildings with our artwork, reaching huge audiences that would probably never walk into a gallery or museum. We use a minimalist language of constantly appearing and disappearing pictograms. The moving icons often represent the collective reality of our interconnected globalized world. “Falling Life” has been projected during the Czech Culture Festival in Berlin, a subversive public interference in Ars Electronica in Linz, at ZKM in Karlsruhe, at the DOX Center for Contemporary Art in Prague, and will soon be shown in Barcelona, Bangkok, and Jerusalem. Meanwhile the project transformed into Falling Times - an online real time news tranlation Machine (fallingtimes.info).
We projected on the façade of the grotesquely gigantic building built by the brutal Romanian dictator Caucescu in Bucharest. With the fall of Communism and the murder of Caucescu, the building of the dictatorial regime is being shared by the parliament of a democratic government and a museum of contemporary art. There was an exhibition in the museum of social realist paintings glorifying the dictator which after his fall looked absurd and preposterous. Boorish parliamentarians did not get the satire of these kitsch artworks and accused the curators of promoting Communist propaganda. Perhaps it is a sign of Isaiah’s prophetic vision to beat swords into plowshares that the buildings of evil regimes are being transformed into centers for creative arts. The media department of the Dusseldorf Art Academy where I studied with Nam June Paik was housed in former Gestapo headquarters and I currently teach in an enormous building shared by my art school and ZKM Center for Art and Media that was a Nazi munitions factory where slave laborers manufactured torpedoes.